One of the Problems at Sony

Apparently all is not well at Sony, with the company posting high losses and their share price at a 24-year low.  Some of that can be put down to the problems Japan has faced over the last year, the biggest of which, the earthquake and resultant tsunami, it will take years to recover from.  Some of the issues were of their own making though, such as the lax security on the PlayStation Network and subsequent bungling of the investigation, clean-up and relaunch.

There’s an area that is probably of much bigger concern though, one that they could fix, as of today, if they wished: they don’t make good products.  I say this as someone who doesn’t buy Sony products, I made a decision years back after a lot of bad experiences (not that I’m saying I never will again) and I will actively avoid buying something with Sony on it if I can.

Sony used to be the gold standard for many products, but that was years ago.  They used to be visionary market leaders as well, but it’s been a long time since they’ve come up with a great product and nothing I can think of comes close to the Walkman.  Their history with formats has been hit and miss, though I bet most people don’t know how many they’ve helped create, having launched 3.5″ floppy disks and co-launched CDs, but for each success there has been a Betamax, a MiniDisc (not bad) or a Memory Stick.

That’s part of their problem, they don’t understand how people use technology (ironically, with my last post being about how Steve Jobs did), or they think locking them into their format will make them more money, which is wrong.  Their digital media players, the latest iteration of their legendary Walkman brand, for example, didn’t support MP3, instead preferring Sony’s own proprietary ATRAC format, so you had to convert all your music into their format, using their clunky software, which nothing else played.  The iPods have supported MP3 from day one.  It may not be the best format, but it has always been the most popular.  It was this blind faith in their format that killed their music store.

From my own personal experience, I had a MiniDisc car stereo.  I liked MiniDisc, you could play through the whole disc or skip through or to certain tracks as you can on any CD or digital player today.  All the tracks except the last track that is, because, unlike every other device ever sold, when you hit skip on the last track, instead of returning to the start of the disc, it did nothing.  Talk about a usability design flaw.

I also had a DVD player of theirs.  The first problem was the remote control had buttons, ones for major operations, that were pin-head small and which you could barely see, never mind push with normal-sized fingers.  And when playing music CDs on the device, if you decided to switch on repeat, it did go round again, but if you put the player on standby and then switched it back on again, it would forget about the repeat, so you’d have to switch the option on each time you wanted to listen to a CD more than once.  Again, simple, but a glaring problem.

Last was my video camera.  It was awesome.  I had a Handycam IP7E, it was tiny, it’s still small even by today’s standards.  The problem was it used MicroMV, a format invented by Sony that no-one else used (I’ve written about my woes before).  So the only software you could edit on was that on the CD supplied by Sony, which wasn’t very good.  It relied on QuickTime 5 and wouldn’t run with any newer version, so it was soon out of date.  A couple of third-party applications did support MicroMV, for one release, and the format soon died.  The problem wasn’t the physical size, which needed to be small to reduce the camera size, the problem was Sony recorded in an non-standard format, instead of just using the popular DV format everyone else used.

There’s a reason Apple sells so many of its products: they know how to make things consumers want and can use.  Sony used to be able to do that, but they’ve lost their way.  First up, they need to open up and make their devices follow industry standards, they need to support the prevailing wind and work with as many other systems as possible.  Stop locking people into proprietary formats and systems, it doesn’t work and it’s counter productive.

Next, design your products for people, not engineers.  Only include the functions people need and remove everything else.  Less is more.  I don’t want to have to try and find some option several layers into a navigation system with choices that don’t say what they are.  Make it do as much of the setup for me, spend some time on the software both on the device and especially on anything I have to use with it.  Work with other companies to include their services so they add value to your consumer instead of fighting them.  This could be said of any company.  Being insular is no longer an option, take a look at social networking to see how people want to be able to connect.

Sony are far from dead, but unless they get their act together they’re going to find a lot of other companies will be passing them by.

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