Can Sony Rise Again?


Apple’s WWDC event is happening tomorrow. Because new announcements in the Apple space happen so rarely, and because that company is historically better than average at keeping secrets, everybody’s going to be watching WWDC to see what Apple announces. Above all, people care about Apple announcements because the company is easily the most influential brand in consumer electronics.

That wasn’t always so. Sony used to be the Apple of the consumer electronics market. In fact, Sony was probably Steve Jobs’ biggest inspiration, responsible for not only Jobs’ famous clothing (his turtlenecks were made by the maker of Sony company uniforms) but also the name Apple (Sony used to be called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation and Jobs was inspired by Sony’s switch to a friendly, happy sounding corporate name).

Shockingly, Sony nowadays loses money on consumer electronics and makes most of its money from selling insurance. The reason Sony loses money is some combination of corporate inefficiency, lack of vision and, most of all, the fact that its products generally aren’t worth the money they charge for them.

In the past couple of decades, Sony has followed a familiar, frustrating pattern: They always enter consumer electronics market late with overpriced but very good hardware hobbled by their own software interfaces and applications nobody wants. They did it with laptops. They did it with netbooks. They did it with smartphones and tablets, too.

So nobody takes Sony seriously anymore. They’re a two-bit, washed-up has-been.

Or are they?

Sony: I Want More

Sony has a launch of its own scheduled for June 25 in Germany. The press invitation is titled “Lust auf mehr?, which Google Translate tells me means “Want More”?

So what more could Sony possibly be planning? The rumors are incredible.

I wrote a column yesterday for Cult of Mac that wondered whether Apple was still able to surprise us. I still don’t know the answer. But if the Sony rumors are true, we will all be shocked and surprised by Sony — not because we didn’t see it coming, but because the rumors point to products that are very unlike anything the company has done in the past.

Here’s what might be announced:

Sony Xperia i1 Honami. The rumored Honami is a regular smartphone with near-prosumer camera optics and capabilities —  a 20-megapixel camera with optics (from Carl Zeiss), electronics (such as a larged, stacked Exmor RS CMOS sensor) and a very bright, dual-LED flash that result in Cybershot -quality pictures.

Unlike the rumored Galaxy S4 Zoom, which is expected to be a thick smartphone with a low-quality screen but a high-quality camera — 16 megapixels with a 10x optical zoom lens — the Honami would be a no-compromises phone with a great screen: a Reality/Triluminos display with image processing comparable to Sony TVs. It’s rumored to contain the blisteringly fast Snapdragon 800 processor. It might even have front-facing liquid-magnetic stereo speakers powered by a dedicated Walkman chip.

The Honami would be far more desirable than both the Symbian Nokia 808 PureView with a 41-megapixel camera, as well as a rumored updated Windows Mobile version. Unfortunately, nobody wants to use Symbian or Windows Mobile.

That raises the possibility that Sony alone could have the killer, no-compromises prosumer camera smartphone — better than anything Apple, Samsung or anyone else sells.

Sony Xperia L4 Togari. The rumored Togari tablet is a 6.44-inch “phablet.” A really beautiful, well-designed Android tablet is sorely needed. And the rumors suggest a revolutionary display that will let you use anything from a stick to a pencil to a finger as a pointing device.

Sony Xperia Z ‘Nexus Edition’. Another rumor says Sony will join the two Android handset leaders, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, with a user interface created by Google. Instead of the usual horrible Sony crapware everybody hates, the Sony phone might ship with the same user interface as the Nexus 4.

And, come to think of it, Sony has been doing some really interesting things lately. For example, I’m intrigued by the company’s Xperia ZR underwater smartphone (pictured). It’s not just water resistant. You can take it with you into the water and take pictures and video underwater, too.

What’s intriguing about the rumors is that, if true, Sony might actually have a shot at being an awesome — scratch that — THE awesome consumer electronics company again.

They suggest a resurgent company with the hardware design elegance of Apple plus the out-of-the-box thinking of Samsung centered in at least one case on the killer services of Google.

And they could even go ahead and charge a premium for it. Because the problem with Sony isn’t high prices. It’s that their products in the past weren’t worth those prices. But I would gladly pay $900 for an elegant, Google-experience smartphone with high-end optics and camera sensors. Make it waterproof, and they can go ahead and add $200 to that price.

And if I’m going to be carrying around expensive Sony hardware, I might need some insurance, too.