The Zen of Brute Force: Sony’s return?

Lone wolf

Sony has got many things wrong for a long, long time. It completely missed crucial concepts like the iPod and has a bewildering array of lines from cheap clock radios to great tvs to semiconductors, movies and beyond. I used to have a tonne of Sony products, but the brand has disappeared from much of my life. I have a Sony TV, mobile and clock radio. Sony made the LCD panel and DVD-R drive for my Mac and probably numerous other components I am unaware of but that’s it. When I was a child a Sony was something to aspire to, and there still is a residual glow but as soon as I noticed that basic build quality was falling apart (when my awful plastic Discman did) I became a skeptic. Now I look for best of breed for all my bits.

In true Samurai fashion though, it should never be counted out by the wise. I was not alone in being stunned by the outrageous kamikaze attack on HD-DVD via the PlayStation 3. Blu-ray made the PS3 late to market and much, much more expensive than it needed to be. This effectively meant ceding a large chunk of the profitable console market to Microsoft – perhaps forever. Many journos and commentators cited HD-DVD’s superior production economics and launch features. They kept kicking at old Sony for its costly, arrogant gamble. All must be amazed at the speed of HD-DVD’s collapse – a canceled CES press conference then free fall.

A brute force combo of better technology and a willingness to burn money won through in the end. There was no way the content goons or retailers would support two redundant HiDef disc formats and Sony’s blood sacrifice of PS3 sales and short term profits to get Blu-ray into homes forced matters along. The rewards are considerable – years of royalties to make up for all its many dormant or failing businesses. Of course history should have instructed everyone not to get involved in a format war – which seem worryingly more frequent and based on royalty greed (like DVD-R vs. DVD+R). Consumer confidence and shareholder value are destroyed every time.

There is a pattern in Sony’s attempt to bust into markets – subsidised, aggressively marketed technical excellence. Another example is to be found in its high end digital camera business. A couple years back it bought the dying DSLR offering of wheezing, increasingly obscure Konica/Minolta. Yet it has promised itself a 20% chunk of the DSLR market, in which it has no brand profile. Few models have appeared yet but at the PMA show Sony made it clear that it will be using its own full frame (that means equal in size and quality to film) sensors in future high end models, which will feature 24.6 megapixels – making them the highest resolution on the market by far. Nikon uses Sony sensors for its own top models as well. These sensors are very, very costly to develop and produce. Sony also will be using more Carl Zeiss sourced lenses – again an expensive, brute force option.

Anyone seeking to tangle with Sony should expect a patient and now very underestimated opponent ready to make big sacrifices while using heavy weapons.

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