March 2, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Sony's software future

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generally been regarded as successful. The core PlayStation and PSP software, developed by the PlayStation group, has been well-received by gamers.

But Sony's near-three-year efforts to create an iTunes rival called Connect highlight the company's weaknesses, and provide a case study in what it must overcome to succeed.

That product's repeated failings have contributed to the Walkman brand's tumble to sixth place in the U.S. portable digital audio market, with just 2 percent market share over the full year 2005, according to NPD Group. Even in Japan, Sony's digital audio products hold just 16 percent of the market, compared with the iPod's 51 percent, according to a recent BusinessWeek report.

Connect was conceived in mid-2003 as a competitor to iTunes; it would help digital devices manage music, and be a gateway to a service selling music--and ultimately games, movies and more--online.

By that time, Apple had clearly jumped ahead of Sony, setting consumer expectations for devices and software features. This left Sony in an unfamiliar position, with engineers and executives on both sides of the Pacific arguing about how much to rely on Sony's own innovations, and how much to adopt the feature sets of Apple and other digital music leaders.

For the most part, the Sony way won out. The software was built on the company's old MiniDisc management software, called SonicStage. Music would be sold in Sony's proprietary audio format, with its own copy-protection tools.

One former insider recalled that Sony executives in Japan even resisted using playlists--one of the most common ways of organizing listening--because that was "an iTunes paradigm," not something developed by Sony.

The resulting product, released in mid-2004, was a flop. A year later, in early 2005, Sony Corporation of America Chief Technology Officer Phil Wiser conceded that the software had been a problem but said the company had learned from both its own mistakes and iTunes' gains.

"The software has gotten killed," Wiser told CNET News.com in a February 2005 interview. "We were well aware of the changes in the market, and clear on how we could address these things, but we didn't move fast enough."

Fast enough may still be a problem.

Two years later, the Connect software has yet to get a significant upgrade in the United States. The European release of the new Connect Player software package, bundled with the promising new Walkman, was so flawed that Sony Europe recommended some customers use the older software instead.

Window for change is closing
Sony isn't alone in these issues. Consumer electronics companies have risen and fallen in the past because their products have or haven't been simple and easy to use. In today's software-driven world, that means the tightest possible integration between software and hardware is necessary.

Apple has shown how that model can work market wonders. Most others, on both the hardware and software side of the spectrum, have struggled.

Microsoft, with a software background, is having trouble with its consumer electronics ambitions. Its successful Xbox division was a first step toward the integrated Apple model, and the company has several new hardware products such as the Origami planned or rumored to be under discussion.

In theory, Sony should also be able to pursue similarly tight integration between its own hardware and software. But analysts say it will require a concerted, companywide effort, which could be difficult to maintain.

"It's not like they don't have decent software coders," said GartnerG2 analyst Mike McGuire. "They've got good ones. It's about getting them in line, and getting them to focus."

That focus is essential. Analysts predict that even mainstream devices such as DVD players and home entertainment centers will soon tap into home networks, allowing music and video to be streamed around a house, for example.

Sony has the resources to respond to these challenges, analysts say. It retains a vast pool of talent, and valuable technologies such as the PlayStation 3 and the Blu-ray disc patents.

It's also shown a new openness in recent years to outside ideas, insiders say. Most notably, former QuickTime engineer Peter Hoddie, now head of media player company Kinoma, has spent weeks shuttling back and forth between Japan working with Sony on issues such as interface design.

Hoddie did not return calls for comment on his role at Sony.

"It's not too late for any consumer electronics company to get its software house in order," said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "But it will require investments and a change of focus that can be challenging for a large company in a relatively short time frame."

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30 comments

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Plus, they have rootkits!
These companies need to worry more about interoperability than walled gardens. Then maybe they'll enjoy success.
Posted by ordaj (338 comments )
Reply Link Flag
boycott
i am still boycotting them. why do geeks have such a short memory?
Posted by duke12aw (24 comments )
Link Flag
Sony seem to have lost it in Australia
I recently had my Sony Ericsson phone die and to say Sony have
been unresponsive is an understatement. Their latest email sent
about a week after my complaint sent me a link to their
warantee that gave me an error 404, page not found message.
When I pointed this out to them, and criticised their customer
service they have put me on their list of spam addresses!

Check out their website too. It is so unresponsive as to almost
be unusable.

Sorry Sony for me you have lost the battle!
Posted by simon_griffiths (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Simplicity Rules
Apple is winning because the hardware and software are fully integrated, easy to use and easy to understand. While iTunes is positioned around a proprietary format (.aac), it allows customers the option to ignore it and easily use .mp3 instead. Apple gives real people the three things they want and makes them work together. Microsoft gives everyone 10,000 things they don't really want and makes it impossible to figure out how to make them work. Sony pretends to give people what they want and makes it impossible for anything to work together that doesn't have the Sony label (and then overcharges for the add-ons). People vote with their feet. Winning is easy if you focus on the user, ease of use and the five or six critical requirements.
Posted by clarktomd1 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
AAC not proprietary
While I agree with most of this post I wanted to point out that it
isn't AAC, an open format, that has people locked into the iTunes
store- it is Apple's DRM FairPlay. I'd argue that AAC is superior to
the other compression formats unless you go lossless.
Posted by leoartmac (1 comment )
Link Flag
God save the queen
Observing Sony's business practice you can easily decipher that
they are laying off people over a short period of time.... Retail
stores *laughs* lots of assets being diluted all across the board
with projects which dont yeild fruits... PS3 is just another omen for
Sony.... Samsung will crush them in time.... its sad at one point
everything i owned was sony...
Posted by mzima (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ease Of Use will Trump The VValue of the Sony Brand
As new products fly from concept to production, Sony will quickly be left in the dust. Their current mindset seems to be based on products that are so securely locked down, that they lose their functionality.

Take the PSP for example. This product should have made incredible gains in market share as a portable media playback device, but at every turn, Sony thwarts the end user but introducing patches that do little more than restrict the end users use of the product.

The most important thing that Sony can do if they wish to survive the digital revolution, is decide whether they are a content provider, or they are the delivery system manufacturer. They appear unable to do both, and apparently the content provider side has more powerful executives because they seem to dictate how the manufacturing end is run.
Posted by PiratePete (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Apple Engineers...
It's interesting to think why, in recent news, from Samsung's efforts
with Inventor, Inc, Microsoft and Sony hiring Apple engineers.
Posted by emiliosic (45 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I hope ROOTKIT maker Sony always fails
DOWN WITH SONY!
Posted by Stan Johnson (322 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Minor correction
Sony did not make a rootkit. They never have. They purchased a rootkit from First 4 Internet, and then tried to shove it down their customers throats, using sleezy, underhanded tactics.
Posted by catchall (245 comments )
Link Flag
Once a hardware...
... always a hardware...

That's what Sony is. They're really a hardware company. That's where they're good at. So, little can be expected from their software.

And Sony might as well stick to that...
Posted by Mendz (519 comments )
Reply Link Flag
After Careful Reading of the Article
I think the point of the article is that a company that sticks with only hardware will fail because success hinges on great implementation of software on hardware. I just wish that Sony would spend its software development dollars on that great implementation, and not on Root Kits and other confounded DRM schemes.

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
I don't buy Sony's anymore. Can't trust them.
I can't trust Sony hardware. Once plugged in, one never knows when a Sony hardware will decide to rape the PC and your financial information within.

We'll just have to wait for the American Apple to perfect the business and give Sony some time to copy it before Sony's software is up to Amercian standards.

All my flatscreens now are Panasonic. So's the DVD players and theater systems.
Posted by kamwmail-cnet1 (292 comments )
Reply Link Flag
They're Stovepipes
They're called "stovepipes", not silos. 25+ years managing experience (before retirement) and taking a bunch of advanced management classes and I never heard them call "silos". But, hey, we're talking Sony here: Just more proof that they are the epitome of the "not invented here" company.

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sony is off to a good start with RootKit!
Yeah, how much do you trust Sony with their endless DRM and RootKit?
Posted by bobby_brady (765 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oh well, it's all about choices ultimately!
Oh well, if they wish to sell decent software, then they will certainly have to lift their game, and improve the current substandard products they sell, and increase end user useability by several orders of magnitude, and eliminate the DRM that is the hallmark of all their software to date!

Further, SONY's level of customer service, varies from very poor to non existent!

Hmm, a recipe for disaster, if you ask me!

Let them sell garbage, it can only downgrade the already poor brand name that SONY represents in the world of today, for after all who can forget the rootkit of '05 or the dodgy SONY BRAVIA lcd tv sets, with the self destruct 1200 hour count up timer, supplied free of charge, or the questionable attempt to lock down SACD players!

Let the fun begin, as all users shun all of SONY bluray inclusive,for they are the company with the built in anti user DRM and zero customer service ethic!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sony Walkman's would rock if i could use WMP
I almost bought the new Sony MP3 player. Hardware is very nice - much better than iPod. But I did not like Connect software. I wish Sony would be less ignorant and would allow people to use Windows Media Player to manage music. Then people would have a choice...
Posted by alenas (181 comments )
Reply Link Flag
the walkman phones do work w/WMP10!
just so you know..

the new walkman phones do work with Windows Media Player 10. I've been syncing my Sony Ericsson W800i walkman phone to my Media Player for a while.
peace
Posted by seamonkey420 (72 comments )
Link Flag
They could have owned the MP3 market
Sony revolutionised music with the Walkman in the 80s. They were in a perfect position to be where Apple is today as they are both a record label and appliance maker.

But they failed due to lack of vision and the cannablising their CD Music business. Instead of seeing synergy with their Music and appliance business, they saw conflict.

It's really amazing how un-innovative companies like Sony can be. They seem to be unable to move with new technology that competes with their old stuff. But they do so at their own peril.

With the success of Napster, record companies should have seen the writing on the wall. But all they wanted to do was shut them down and revert back to selling CDs.

Too late Sony, we are living in an online age where downloads are a normal part of everyday life. CD players are bulky and so last century.

Goodbye Sony. You left your mark in the late 20th century and good on you for that. But the 21st century belongs to innovators and those willing to embrace new ideas fast.

I can appreciate that you are making an effort now, but it is a bit late and you have missed out on a lot of revenue to Apple.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Lack of Vision
So you consider being the first provider of a compressed music player to be lacking in vision? Why?
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
Link Flag
Great little MP3 player...too bad
I live in Asia and have examined the NW-A3000 up close. It's a very slick device that could possibly eat into Apple's market share. I was ready to buy one myself, but the software problems turned me away.
How can this possibly happen?
Personally, I don't want to use any proprietary software just to fill up my mp3 player.
Posted by Jackson Pollock (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Have you *used* Sony software on the Vaio?
I completely reject your assertion that Sony's "DVD viewing and creation tools", shipped with Sony Vaio computers, has generally been regarded as successful. They're successful only because they are delivered with every machine. I can't imagine that anyone would buy them as standalone tools, or that anyone buys a Vaio in preference to another brand just to get those tools. Having owned 3 Vaios, I have found Sony's preinstalled software to be buggy and non-competitive with commercial and open source products for DVD viewing and creation. GigaPocket (PVR software) is a complete disaster, and I don't have much better to say about the other programs. If you ever try to get support for these products, the standard reply from SOS (Sony Online Support) is to reinstall the application from the recovery disk. They seem to have no way to connect the support team, wherever it is in the world, to the people who wrote those programs and could fix them. With this low level of software quality, neither Microsoft nor Apple should worry about Sony's future in software.
Posted by tonyw (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Have you *used* Sony software on the Vaio?
I completely reject your assertion that Sony's "DVD viewing and creation tools", shipped with Sony Vaio computers, has generally been regarded as successful. They're successful only because they are delivered with every machine. I can't imagine that anyone would buy them as standalone tools, or that anyone buys a Vaio in preference to another brand just to get those tools. Having owned 3 Vaios, I have found Sony's preinstalled software to be buggy and non-competitive with commercial and open source products for DVD viewing and creation. GigaPocket (PVR software) is a complete disaster, and I don't have much better to say about the other programs. If you ever try to get support for these products, the standard reply from SOS (Sony Online Support) is to reinstall the application from the recovery disk. They seem to have no way to connect the support team, wherever it is in the world, to the people who wrote those programs and could fix them. With this low level of software quality, neither Microsoft nor Apple should worry about Sony's future in software.
Posted by tonyw (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
playstation 3 has just been released....
playstation 3 has just been released...

technical specifications and the only site currently selling it is :

click on this link : <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://imedia.atspace.com/ps.htm" target="_newWindow">http://imedia.atspace.com/ps.htm</a>
Posted by imediacorporation (34 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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