Why and how Sony should double down on its Mobile Handset division

Sony executives recently quashed rumors that they planned on selling their struggling mobile handset division[i], which makes the Xperia phone among others. This announcement reduced some of my angst brought on by Sony’s success in squandering opportunities to be a dominant media/technology conglomerate: ditching mobile would have been the equivalent of Russia selling Alaska to the USA, only for vast quantities of oil to be found in Alaska about 100 years later. The Economist recently reported that the number of people using smartphones is estimated to double from 2Bn to 4bn by the end of the decade[ii]; which means that there is a lot of money to be made. Now the question is, how—especially for Sony?

The current state of the phone landscape is similar to personal computers 10 years ago when the ubiquity of Windows meant that computer manufacturers were selling items that provided the exact same experience after turning on the device. Now, as smartphone technology matures and features become standardized, smartphones are becoming commodities; meaning that a user can replace one brand with another without losing or gaining much of significance. Various attendees of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year lamented this fact[iii] and the big manufacturers during last week’s Mobile World Congress confirmed this trend. Their “new” products increased screen resolution, processing speed and battery life compared to last year’s products. Even then, these improvements are mostly unnoticeable in daily use. And while this commoditization phenomenon is especially prominent in the Android world, Apple is not immune. Fingerprint scanners and NFC payment services are available on both sides; but Apple has mastered the art of making you pay a lot more for those same features. You know things are bad when the big news is the mere fact that iPhones are now bigger, and people are excited that Samsung Galaxy phones now have curved edges that add minimal functionality but significantly hinder the user experience[iv].

The standardization of features turns this scene into a drab specs-race in which unknown manufacturers like Saygus are bringing powerhouses like the V2 phone, which contains higher spec’d versions of these same features, at prices lower than the big manufacturers can or should charge. So what are the big manufacturers to do?

Well that depends on the manufacturer’s strengths and weaknesses[v]; and just like Bryan Mills, Sony has a unique set of strengths that is has cultivated over a long career[vi]. Through its Playstation platform, Sony understands gaming and gamers like no other (or at least it ought to). Furthermore, the fact that more and more people are using their phones for gaming purposes makes Sony’s insight into gaming invaluable. If I were a Sony Mobile executive, my vision for the mobile division would be that “Anybody interested in experiencing a phenomenal gaming or game-like experience on a mobile device should be getting a Sony mobile device.” Just as Japanese cars are known for reliability and Mazda within that category is the sporty car; Sony’s phones should be “The phone on which to experience gaming”, and if this strategy means cannibalizing its own PlayStation in the long run, better that Sony does this to itself than having Apple take their lunch, again.

And if Sony is having trouble seeing this, they can call me to run their Smartphone division for them.


[i] http://www.xperiablog.net/2015/03/03/sony-refutes-suggestions-that-mobile-is-up-for-sale/

[ii] Planet of the Phones; The Economist Feb28th-March 6th issue.

[iii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/ewanspence/2015/01/08/smartphones-are-boring-a-secret-lesson-in-commoditization-from-ces/

[iv] I don’t say this out of ignorance, I currently use a Samsung Note Edge, LG Nexus 5, Moto Maxx [not the Droid Maxx], and a Lumia 520 and recently sold my Xperia Ultra Z. My iPad mini is an iPhone 6 plus that can’t make phone calls, and I am yet to be convinced by Apple of a need to switch. I bought an HTC one (M8) last year and sent it back because apart from the nice metallic finish, it was not only boring but also inferior to my then Note 3, which I later upgraded to my current Note Edge, much to my disappointment. I am eagerly awaiting the Saygus V2, which I expect to be a boring phone with all the highest specs.

[v] Samsung should focus on the Note for the business segment; Motorola should go back to Google to showcase Google’s idea for Android (or it should work with me on the BeastPhone project).

[vi] In the heyday of Steve Jobs Apple-Disney alliance, I wrote that the only company with the resources to challenge that power couple was Sony, which is both a content and product company.


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