Sony (SNE) CEO Howard Stringer isn’t in an enviable position. The company has had a rough few years, and expects to lose a cool billion dollars in the fiscal year ending in March 2012. The TV business, in particular, has been a millstone around his neck; the price of TV, very much a commodity, has gone down steadily for years, and the poor economy has driven people towards budget brands and smaller sets if they buy anything at all. Despite this, Stringer is philosophical about the hard times.
You have bad years,” he told the Wall St Journal. “The trick is to weather them, learn from them, act graciously through them, and learn why and when you have to change.” And the TV market is ripe for real change, but whether they can make a better change than their new adversary in there, Apple, is up in the air.
Jobs was rumored to have been working on just this problem, the reinvention of TV, before he died. Inventor, manager, or tweaker, whatever the man was, he was certainly someone you didn’t want working on a product that competed with yours. Stringer, aware of this, began preemptively working against Apple: “I spent the last five years building a platform so I can compete against Steve Jobs. It’s finished, and it’s launching now,” he said.
This was in reference, however, to a multi-screen strategy that unifies experiences across mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and TVs. If Apple is building something, it’s going to be a single “breakthrough device,” as they are sure to call it, not an ecosystem or a meta-platform optional to a hundred different devices. Is Sony ready for that?
It’s been a long time since Sony had to invent anything on its own in this sector. For years it has sold the same products in increasingly powerful variations or with lowered price points. Despite real advantages in some areas and a global network of consumer electronics companies that rely on its OEM portion (the iPhone 4S’s new camera is a Sony, for instance), it has had precious few original ideas.
Is it even possible for this company to rise to the challenge and beat Apple (AAPL) to the punch by disrupting its own industry? Sony is many things, but surprising isn’t one of them. Their forces are too widely distributed, and are vulnerable to a blitzkrieg by someone like Apple who, having no commodity business to look after, can afford to go all out on a single device, price, interface, and platform. Sony’s CEO is at least treating the issue with the respect it deserves, but that probably won’t be enough.