Sony: Our innovation is back

Drive to be more contemporary is helping company shed its image as one "ridiculed for its software development", says its chairman and CEO Howard Stringer.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The innovation is back at Sony, that is the message the company aims to spread.

Pointing to several industry "firsts", Sony Chairman and CEO Howard Stringer said Tuesday the company has "recovered" in all areas that it was seen to be having difficulties. The Sony chief was speaking to the media during his first visit to Singapore since he took over the company helm in 2005.

One area in which Sony is leading the industry is OLED (organic light-emitting diode) television sets--a "true major milestone", said Stringer. The company first launched its OLED product last December in Japan, released it in North America early this year and is now introducing it in Europe. "Other companies are advertising the same thing for the future but we have it now," he proclaimed.

Some of that innovation has also taken place around software, an area the company was not known for. Stringer pointed out that he took over a company that was hardware-focused and vertically organized, but the business was increasingly about designing a "software product".

To drive interaction amongst his software engineers in the various business units, Stringer organized cocktail parties to encourage them to get to know one another and the applications they were working on. That even led to engineers using their personal time to work together on developing applications beyond the business units they work for, he said.

"There was obviously a hunger to be more contemporary than we were currently," he noted.

As a reflection of that more modern perspective, the PlayStation Network was built with "an interoperable DRM" (digital rights management), said Stringer. "We'd have had a proprietary one before, but this is an interoperable one which is much more useful for the customer. That's a good sign."

The PlayStation Network, a digital media delivery service for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable (PSP) customers, was "launched quietly" based on the experience of being "a company that's been ridiculed for its software development", admitted Stringer. The move turned out to be "very successful", he pointed out.

"Now we have to make Vaio and Sony walkmans and cellphones connect into that PlayStation Network so that they too can deliver the same content seamlessly and freely across those devices instead of the PSP," he added.

The company's goal is to take device-to-device communication further, eventually having 90 percent of Sony devices capable of networking with one another, said Stringer. Essentially, users can migrate all the things they care about from one device to another, such as porting data from a laptop to a PSP, he explained.

Innovation in 'volatile' times
Electronics innovation, said Stringer, really comes from "extensions of an existing theme".

The truth is, everybody's brand new product is an extension of what already exist--the world is no longer a place where you say, 'Oh look, I've just invented television', or 'I've invented [the] cellphone', he pointed out. "You make them bigger and better, thinner, taller, shorter, therefore more convenient for the customer."

With economic pressures and stiffer competition, companies need to "be much more globally connected to the rest of the world" to determine what to innovate and what products to sell.

Risks also have to be weighed and taken, he said. "You have to make choices, whether you build the iPhone or the Vaio X1 you have to balance technology versus customer ease of use versus customer cost--all these things go into the analysis of what you launch on an unsuspecting public."

The OLED technology was one such example, said Stringer. "OLED has been in the works and has been discarded a couple of times as [being] too advanced, too expensive or too difficult to manage for the users.

"We made a decision on OLED--it was such a remarkable technology we'd launch it and lose money on initial devices, but eventually the sheer quality of the picture will solve the problem that would take to get large numbers to market," he explained.

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