It's easy to mock Sony for its lumbering scale, extravagant products and slow development cycle. The thing is vast. It even has its own orchestra, comprising mostly of professional engineers.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Sony CEO Howard Stringer is candid about Sony's problems, and displays a wit and humility that might come as a surprise to those who wonder why it can't be more like its competitors.
"All big companies settle into vertical silos," he told Rose, recounting the difficulties of cutting fat at a Japanese company. "We have to go into the kind of world that Steve Jobs has developed. We're going to communicate horizontally, because every device will talk to every other device."
Why Stringer would be the best replacement for Jobs
This is just for laughs, a chatroom transcript from a few months ago, where I got bored of the usual suspects who always get touted as the next Apple Lord. And if you forget certain important facts for a moment, it's a surprisingly good fit.
Rob B.: My dark horse for Jobs replacement: Howard Stringer
Joel J.: No fucking way. How could you look at Sony over the last four years and think Jobs would let Stringer anywhere near Apple?
Rob B.: Hey, you don't need to tell me about Sony's problems. I think it depends on Apple's ambitions. If it wants to change the world with consumer technology, it wants to become what Sony is. Stringer is not shy about praising Apple, or how its culture results in a lean, integrated approach to product development and the "horizontals," how services unite different products into an ecosystem.
Rob. B.: What Sony's troubles conceal is how well he's melded together a collection of divisions that used to act almost like separate companies. That's why Sony beat Toshiba in the optical disk format war, whatever the victory might be worth in the long run. This leads me to think that he might be the perfect man to handle it when Apple's growth turns dirty and complicated.
Rob. B.: Which it will.
Rob. B.: Finally, he's also an old media person. No-one would be in better shape to lead an Apple invasion on the rest of the entertainment industry outside of music. No-one understands the cable business better than Stringer, and it's cable, with its internets and tubes and bandwidth, which is really in a commanding position when it comes to the question, "who will control content provision?"
Rob B.: But yeah, wildly fantastical, I know.
Joel J.: That is far more reasoned than I expected you to be. I still think it's the wrong person symbolically, though. They'll want another visionary. I think.
People at Sony, he said, didn't even talk to one another.
"You've got to get mad
that the iPod beat us," he told employees at a recent company retreat. "You've got to be mad when Samsung's market share goes up."
He knows that his unique status, as a Westerner in charge of one of Japan's most successful companies, is no accident: "I had to be careful, sylistically," he says of cuts. "... but it was easier for me to take ownership of that kind of ruthlessness than a Japanese executive."
In the interview, he often hints that his job is mostly about unifying something that would otherwise unravel. He also hints that Japan's strongly hierarchical business culture is another reason that change is slow. But when it comes to product development, polite inference gives way to a calculated bluntness.
"We also don't need to make it three times," he told Rose. "... We're so big, we make the same thing twice in different parts of the company, and no-one seems to notice."
Stringer once remarked that when he took over at Sony, he found a company that made more than 30,000 products: it's no wonder that its cool and innovative gear, like the recent Rolly MP3 gadget, and OLED televisions, don't seem part of a grand plan, such as can be seen behind iTunes' connections to almost all of Apple's hardware.
Sony, traditionally, doesn't have an ecosystem at all, just a relentless avalanche of new products. It owns a fifth of the music industry and one of the largest Hollywood studios, but you wouldn't know it from the lack of service integration in its gadgets.
All about to change, according to Stringer, who outlined plans centering around the PlayStation, which he said will ultimately link Sony's many products, acting as a hub to channel media to portable products, regardless of who makes them.
"It's a home server, sitting in the home .. delivering this content anywhere. It's in direct competition with AppleTV."
If it seems odd that he'd see Apple's least-successful current offering as its strongest in the long term, it's worth remembering his background: before taking command at Sony, he had decades of experience as a broadcaster in the U.S. But while Sony has its hands in every imaginable pot, including content-over-internet, it knows that it still has to make a success of its big investements: "If I fail to make Blu-Ray successful, it will be on our tombstone as Betamax 2," Stringer tells Rose.
More interesting points from the interview:
• On OLED television displays: 22" model out soon, and you "could wrap the display around your arm."
• He rather suggested that the cat is out the bag on free music, describing it as a commodity like "air or water." This was, however, to make a point: such a situation is never ever going to be accepted with movies, due to the capital wrapped up in making them.
• "The margins on computers are very small, but everything is becoming a computer."
• The Japanese have a marvelous sense of humor, he said, and have always been very welcoming to him, especially the younger generation at Sony.
• "People want, in bad times, to be entertained."
• "Video games have taken the place of external entertainment in the home," for adults and children alike.
• "Spiderman's been good to Sony."
• On being a Welsh-American working for Japanese company: "I am culturally confused. ... I'm a triple threat and a triple disaster, depending on your point of view. ... I'll wake up after my term at Sony with no friends anywhere, except airline pilots."
• A question: does this renewed focus on internal unity at Sony spell doom for Sony-Ericsson, or what?
Video of interview
[Charlie Rose; the interview starts at 15:45]
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