March 2, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Sony's software future

Sony chief Howard Stringer had almost everything in place going into this year's Consumer Electronics Show in January: big new televisions to show off, high-definition DVDs and the PlayStation 3 on the way, and even a scheduled appearance by Tom Hanks.

The only thing he was missing was good news on Sony's Walkman, which has been eclipsed in popularity by Apple Computer's iPod. A promising new version of the Walkman had just been released in Europe and Asia, but it was being torn apart on Web message boards--largely because critics said the software it came with was slow and crash-prone.

The result? At the year's biggest gadget show, Stringer said little about portable audio, once the company's sweet spot. Sony showed off the shiny new Walkman in its booth but gave no date for when the new device might reach U.S. shores.

"We're between launches in Europe and America, and that just didn't fit the cycle," Stringer told reporters in a press conference before launching quickly into a description of how Sony was changing the way it oversees software development.

He had good reason to change the subject to software, because fixing software development could be every bit as important to Sony's future as perfecting an iPod rival.

Yet Sony's software problem stretches beyond the Walkman. Apple is stepping further into Sony's turf, the living room. Earlier this week, Apple re-released the Mac Mini as a TV-connected audio and video player. Other high-tech rivals from Microsoft down have their own home entertainment ambitions. Apple even has its own iPod stereo system now.

Indeed, consumer electronics devices increasingly depend on software for their core features. Some argue that Sony's ability to fend off Apple and other digital-age rivals depends on its ability to get software for its Walkman and other new products right.

By many accounts, that remains an uphill struggle. Interviews with past and present executives paint a picture of a company that remains split between business divisions and continents. Perhaps even more divisive is a philosophical question regarding how Sony should be run: Should it continue to rely on Sony-produced ideas and features, or adopt ideas from rivals such as Apple that are molding the buying habits of a new generation of consumers?

Politburo problems
Stringer has publicly acknowledged the difficulty of coordinating software development between different divisions (often referred to as "silos"), and hired Apple QuickTime chief Tim Schaaff in December as a new companywide "software czar."

"Software has been designed inside those independent silos, with a tendency for repetition," Stringer told reporters in January, touting Schaaff's role. "Now we have the ability to coordinate software development...We have time with the PSP (PlayStation Portable), and the video revolution, so that nobody else will slip by us."

Encouraging words from the chief exec aside, some inside the company remain pessimistic about Schaaff's ability to change a deeply ingrained culture.

"We need coordination, we need the best and brightest people involved and empowered," said one high-ranking Sony executive, who asked not to be named. "But the old guard in Tokyo is refusing to give up any central control. It's like a Politburo with a five-year plan."

Sony declined requests for interviews with Schaaff or other top executives on the topic of software development.

Exactly what Schaaff can or will do to change existing practices remains unclear. Skeptics note that he still reports to the Tokyo-based Keiji Kimura, Sony's executive vice president in charge of technology strategy, who has presided over the portable device business that's been wounded by the explosive popularity of the iPod.

Top executives' rhetoric also may take time to filter down to the project level, other sources say.

"There is a lot of intellectual understanding of the issue," said one consumer electronics executive familiar with Sony's business practices. "But it's a question of whether on a project by project basis, whether the person in charge understands."

Current and former Sony employees say the company has long pursued a pendulumlike strategy with software, alternately pushing responsibility to individual product groups, and then attempting to centralize control. Schaaff's appointment is in part a move back toward centralization.

In some cases the approach has worked well. Software shipped with Sony Vaio computers, such as DVD viewing and creation tools, has

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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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