Sony's tablet strategy may have style, but does it have heart?

Sony is preparing to roll out its S1 and S2 tablet computers. They're competent devices but do they have the panache to make waves in a market dominated by Apple's iPad?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

NEW YORK -- Sony Corp. is preparing to make a major splash into the tablet market this year, but I fear the company is missing a key component: heart.

Less than an hour ago, I was sitting face to face with Sony executives way up on the 35th floor of the company's New York headquarters on Madison Avenue. The occasion? Two new Google Android-based tablets, the slate-style S1 and the dual-screen compact S2, which were announced earlier this year but revealed to reporters in the flesh for the very first time today.

(The flat S1 is thicker and rounded at one end, like one feather of the modern NBC peacock logo; the dual-screen S2 is a cross between a Nintendo DS and an eyeglasses case: oval in shape and just small enough to fit into a suit jacket or purse.)

Draping the eye candy: several partner announcements (AT&T, for exclusive HSPA+ support of the S2 model; Adobe, for an Air App Challenge; ESPN, for continued 3D sponsorship) and some coquettish refusals to reveal more details about the technical components inside the devices.

For Sony's big entrance into the tablet market, though, I couldn't help but notice a distinct lack of excitement in the room from the Sony executives assembled -- as if they were already past thinking of the S1 and S2.

Perhaps their morning coffee wasn't strong enough, or maybe it's because the same executives made the same presentation to Japanese journalists days before the earthquake and tsunami struck that country, spoiling the company's plans for a global rollout of the devices. It's unclear, but I can certainly say any "gung-ho" attitudes were quietly checked many floors below, at Sky Lobby reception.

Consider this bold question asked of the executives by Liana Baker of Reuters:

"What does this do better than an iPad?"

On its face, it's an unfair question. Sony executives have repeatedly said that they were aiming for the No. 2 spot in the market (Apple's No. 1); furthermore, the company introduced two devices that do not directly compete, feature for feature, with Apple's leading device.

And yet it's entirely fair, because it's the question that every consumer (and enterprise buyer!) will immediately ask themselves.

After a beat of silence -- they were mostly stunned by Baker's temerity -- Sony Electronics president Phil Molyneux took a breath and reiterated the points he opened the discussion with:

  1. Sony's tablets are "unique" because of "optimally designed hardware and software" i.e. design.
  2. They have "swift and smooth" performance, a dig at subpar Google Android-based tablets.
  3. They offer "network entertainment" i.e. Sony's massive content library.
  4. They offer "cross-device connectivity" e.g. DLNA support for TVs, etc.

I'm not sure about you, but nothing in that list compels me to buy a new device, except for maybe No. 2 (and No. 1 only if No. 2 is there).

My point here is that Molyneux and company used logic to argue that Sony products were superior to everything else on the market, except the iPad (strategic reasons, of course). They said they weren't comparing devices by "speeds and feeds," yet compared their device to others on the market based on a feature list.

Their implication, whether they intended to convey it or not, is that the most features wins. But the better experience wins at the point of purchase, and while that word didn't make it into their four talking points, it's what they presumably were trying to get at.

The problem? Like Sony's eponymous e-readers, there's no soul in selling them. Logic simply isn't sexy. The products address a market need without drawing attention to themselves, with exception to Sony's continually refined (but never avant garde) design.

They have style. But they have no story. There is no apparent passion to be had for the Sony tablet. Deep down, we want to be teased, attracted, swept off our feet by a new product. But all we've got is a PowerPoint slide with bullet points to send a thrill up our leg.

Will the corporate apathy transfer to consumers?

It's not an unreasonable question. In his opening remarks, Molyneux said that consumers were at the center of planning and execution for Sony moving forward. The methods: goals to improve its call centers, improve its online experience (website) and a new focus on direct stories to sell products, as evidenced by its new concept store in Los Angeles.

But "we're all snowflakes" is a defensive, not offensive, play and I'm having difficulty connecting the dots between these individual initiatives and an increased chance of an actual sale.

In practice, the tablets themselves are interesting but not captivating. The devices have a feature called "Quick View" that rearrange how protocols are served in a web browser (prioritizing small files first, for instance) to more "quickly load" a website. (The engineers admitted that it's sleight of hand, however: a webpage isn't loading faster, it's just loading more things your eye recognizes first, e.g. graphics before javascript.)

The tablets also tout very responsive touchscreens, a point of concern for early Android smartphones and tablets. (Sony calls it "Quick TouchPad," but I call it "what consumers expect.")

But for all the hardware features -- Sony's keeping mum on most specs, which it will reveal later this year -- the strongest reason these devices have a chance is their manufacturer's largesse. Aside from impressive global distribution, Sony also brings PlayStation certification to the table (yes, they'll both play PS games) as well as e-book support. (On the dual-screen S2, this feature comes off like a pocket Bible.)

The devices also carry DLNA support, which means you can export content to your television or computer for viewing. It's a nice touch, and the kind of thing multi-tentacled Sony can do without breaking a sweat. The tablets can also be used as a remote control via an embedded IR port.

It all adds up to a competitive device, but can the features laundry list translate to sales for a consumer base that either 1.) doesn't see the utility of a tablet or 2.) does but maybe just wants a non-iPad iPad?

It's that second point that's worrisome, because it means any competent tablet could fulfill this need: made by Sony, Samsung, Motorola, HP, whomever. Sony will get a piece of the pie only because it's so present in the market, but the question is how much they really want to go after.

To boot, Apple's price points are so competitive that they make an alternative relatively unattractive. Remember what happened in smartphones? Everyone wanted an iPhone, and when they couldn't get it -- because it was locked on AT&T -- they bought into Google Android. But with tablets, carriers matter less in the buying equation.

So I ask: is Sony ready to pursue tablet market share with the vigor that Barnes & Noble wants e-reader share or HTC wants smartphone share? Or is the S1 and S2 like the Sony Reader, late model Walkman and Alpha digital SLR camera: ready, willing and able but entirely lacking that certain je ne sais quoi?

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