Can Sony stop breaking its fans' hearts?

Customers are cautiously optimistic that a rumored phone and tablet could put the company back on the right track.

At some point, Sony became the Chicago Cubs of consumer electronics, that team stacked with talent that still finds a way to not make it to the World Series.

Twenty years ago, few would have made that analogy, of course. But that was before a long string of letdowns. The Walkman, once the king of portable music players, was unseated by the iPod. The Reader, which came out before the Kindle, was quickly surpassed by Amazon's e-reader. And the PlayStation 3, the follow-up to Sony's PS 2 gaming juggernaut, was slow out of the gate. Though it initially shipped in late 2006, it didn't beat the Microsoft Xbox 360 or Nintendo's Wii in sales until last September . Even in televisions, Sony is getting beaten at its own game by Samsung .

Now, after several years of fading influence on the gadgets scene, comes reports that Sony is stepping up to the plate with new devices that could help the company regain the upper hand. Sony is apparently readying both a smartphone that will play some PlayStation games--perhaps the long-awaited "PlayStation Portable phone" --and a tablet-like device that will plug into the soon-to-be-launched online media platform that will sell games, movies, and television shows.

Sony PSP Go
Sony's PSP Go hasn't been able to topple the dominance of the Nintendo DS. CNET

Sony's jaded fandom, so far, is hardly euphoric. "This could be really nice. Or not. I look forward with pleasure to learning of the newest batch of doomed proprietary formats and sealed platform. (Please, Sony, just for once... prove me wrong)," wrote reader "AreWeThereYet?" on Gizmodo. A fellow reader known as "R.O.A.C.H." wrote, "I like the general idea here. The problem is, it'll probably be locked down worse than the iPhone."

There's good reason to be tired of the string of recent false starts, wrote Christopher McManus, the editor of the Sony Insider blog, in an e-mail interview. Sony's use of proprietary formats and failure to produce a true convergence gadget--one device that takes advantage of the wealth of content and technology Sony has at its disposal--have long vexed hardcore customers.

"Sony makes huge gambles with their innovations, hoping that they will take off and become mainstream," he said. "The general feeling is that when Sony launched a product in the past--specifically the '90s and early '00s--it could do so much, but generally was lacking a few key features and was generally more successful in an environment with only other Sony products."

That's a nice way of saying some products were half-baked and were made to work with other Sony products. There are plenty of recent examples: the UMD format for games and movies that could only play on the PlayStation Portable, and the use of Memory Stick in the Walkman and Sony Ericsson phones. And more recently, their version of Roku or Apple TV, called Sony Bravia Internet Video Link that works only with, you guessed it, a Sony Bravia TV.

The result of these recent missteps is a group of fans who you might say are passionate in their pessimism. A comment by user Agreeable_Panda on the gaming blog Kotaku, summed it up: "Seriously, I have so much love for that company, and yet, at the same time, so much hate. They do so many things so well, and so many things so terribly. They are one giant paradox."

It's not that Sony doesn't have good ideas anymore, which customers and fans clearly recognize. The company is a leader in digital photography and is responsible for the rise of the Blu-ray format, and the extension of the 3D ecosystem, from the 3D cameras used by film studios to the forthcoming TVs to watch them on. The execution in some areas lately has been a problem.

The PSP is a perfect example of a great idea that Sony failed to capitalize on and left fans disappointed, says Andrew Yoon, an editor at gaming blog Joystiq.

"Five years ago, Sony released an incredible convergence device that was able to play music, video, and games of unparalleled graphic quality. It could have been the successor to the Walkman Sony had always been looking for," he said. "But Sony was much too late in opening the device to App developers, and providing a viable media store, all while Apple launched the iPod and iPhone."

The same thing happened with the launch of the PSP Go , the redesigned gaming handheld. "It's a terrific piece of hardware, but Sony foolishly priced it well beyond its perceived value," Yoon said. "The PS3 launch should have proven that when consumers can't afford your product, they'd much rather hate your brand."

The fear that Sony doesn't execute on its ideas in ways that make sense to all of its customers isn't new. For years, Sony fans have complained about the company's insistence on proprietary software and formats. Only recently has Sony signaled it was ready to give in, opting to sell SD cards for its products instead of relying on Memory Stick, its proprietary storage format.

Sony Dash
The Dash could be a sign of what's to come from Sony. Sony

And long before Apple began lining up music labels and music studios to sell content through its iTunes portal, Sony had its own music labels (SonyBMG) and studio (Sony Pictures) at its disposal. Only this month is it planning on launching a media platform that will allow owners of Sony laptops and gaming devices, and apparently future smartphones and tablets, access to content that they otherwise could have turned to services like iTunes for.

When it comes to gadgets, Sony's executives have admitted that it has struggled turning its ideas into products quickly enough to keep up with trends. The tablet is a good example. Only last month did Sony say it was interested in making a tablet, even admitting they were late to the game .

But there are signs that Sony is at least thinking in the right direction. The company showed off the Dash Personal Internet Viewer at CES 2010, which right now is a really nifty alarm clock with Internet access. But Sony has brought in software people to look at how to open up the platform to non-Sony content like Twitter and Facebook, and is specifically targeting less tech-savvy people. It's also a sign that they understand the importance of their products working better together for the benefit of the consumer, said Ross Rubin, an analyst for the NPD Group who follows the consumer electronics industry.

"You can have an infinite number of kinds of devices between a smartphone and a laptop, it's hard to say which of those they'll turn into a product. The Dash is an interesting harbinger of the type of convergence-capable product that they could launch that grows out of an existing category," Rubin said.

Of course, making a legitimate iPhone and/or iPad competitor isn't the only way to lure back old fans and win some new ones, but it's a good start. As Joystiq's Yoon pointed out, there's plenty of room left for Sony to have a hit product that focuses on games, and is not necessarily an all-in-one media device. And fans probably shouldn't put too much stock in whether what Sony comes up with next will help it compete better with Apple.

"I don't think the iPhone is the end-all of a gaming-centric convergence device. Once again, while it has a lot of great games, hardcore gamers simply don't view it in the same light as a PSP or a DS," Yoon said. "There's clearly an opportunity to refine the experience, and until we actually see Sony's supposed devices in action, we can't really jump to conclusions."

 

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