May 31, 2006 1:20 PM PDT
How Sony failed to Connect, again
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In early 2000, Hoddie created Generic Media, a streaming media company that included Sony among its investors. In 2002, that was succeeded by another multimedia software company, Kinoma, founded with two former Apple colleagues.
Kinoma's announced products today are a digital media player, a photo album, and a media manager aimed at people who use media on portable devices, particularly Palm-based handhelds and Sony's Portable PlayStation. Kinoma consults for outside companies and has worked with Sony on smaller projects.
But its crown jewel is a code base called FSK, a new system for handling multimedia files as they're transferred online, to PCs and between handheld devices.
Hoddie's history at Apple made him appealing to Sony executives who felt Steve Jobs stole a digital music crown that was rightfully theirs. By early 2005, he could demonstrate prototype digital music software dubbed KTunes, which was based on FSK. It seemed to provide a way to jump-start Sony's own digital music effort.
But the project, said one high-level Sony insider, was an "unmitigated disaster."
FSK was not a mature technology, according to critics, and lacked most of the documentation sought by Sony programmers working with the system. It wasn't designed to integrate with Sony's existing Web or commerce systems, and wasn't based on the HTML or XML standards used by traditional Internet applications, so it required significant work to build almost any feature.
Sony insiders say Kinoma's core technology was designed to function on a portable device and on the PC. A prototype FSK-based version of the Sony Walkman was created, but the company decided early on to avoid this route and stick to Kinoma on the PC.
In late spring, questions from the U.S. programmers resulted in memos from top executives in Tokyo reaffirming Hoddie's role as chief architect of the Connect project. That certainly didn't help what some insiders later described as a communications breakdown.
By early summer, the Connect programmers were saying they had no way of meeting plans to release the software with a new generation of Walkman devices in late summer. They blamed the platform. Hoddie blamed them.
The issue finally came to a head when the co-presidents in charge of the Connect project, New York's Wiser and Tokyo-based Koichiro Tsujino, flew to San Jose, Calif., for a meeting with the programmers, briefly attended by Hoddie. The executives were presented with data and complaints about the project, and told again, unequivocally, that the schedule could not be met.
The meeting provided a dose of reality. Features began to be cut. Relations between the core Sony programmers and Kinoma declined so far that a team in Japan was asked to serve as a buffer between the two camps, relaying communications from San Jose to Palo Alto, and back.
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