Can the Xperia Ion get Sony out of its mobile rut?

Sony is just the latest company to attempt a comeback in the U.S. smartphone business.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: an embattled consumer electronics company is counting on its latest smartphone to vault it back onto the U.S. consumer's radar.

I could be talking about Nokia , Research in Motion , or LG . But today, it's Sony and the Xperia Ion, which AT&T will sell on June 24 for $99.99 .

That you could tell the same attempted-comeback story about so many different vendors in the U.S. underscores the increasingl challenges in the smartphone arena, where there are a few haves (Apple and Samsung Electronics) and many more have-nots (everyone else). With the entrenched players shoring up their positions in the U.S., it's doubly tough for new or returning entrants to get back into the game.

"The U.S. smartphone market is extremely competitive and it will be difficult for any new entrant to gain market share," said Hugues de la Vergne, an analyst for Gartner.

Enter Sony, which is hoping to do better than its predecessor Sony Ericsson in bringing the Xperia smartphone brand to U.S. consumers later this month. It would be hard-pressed to do worse.

Xperia who?
The Xperia line, which has been around four nearly four years, has barely registered a blip on the U.S. radar. Carriers here have skipped several models of Xperia smartphones, which were then sold under the Sony Ericsson name. When Verizon Wireless and AT&T took a chance last year with the PlayStation-inspired Xperia Play, it flopped.

The Xperia Ion is the first phone to carry the sole Sony brand -- and is also its first 4G LTE smartphone for AT&T -- so there's a lot riding on its success. At stake is Sony's future presence in the U.S. smartphone business, its ability to continue working with the carriers, and its (already fading) reputation as a preeminent consumer electronics company.

"If Sony's intention is to remain a major force in consumer electronics, then they have to have a successful phone line," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer electronics for Current Analysis.

Likewise, Sony knows how important a successful smartphone business is to the company.

"We see the smartphone as the hub for everything else," said Stephen Sneeden, product marketing manager for Sony.

But a need for success doesn't translate into actual success, and Sony has a heap of challenges ahead of it. After the Xperia Play debacle, the carriers aren't eager to bet too heavily on the company. Sony may have a strong brand when it comes to video games, but it's a nonentity in the phone world.

The Xperia Ion, meanwhile, enters a crowded market with stepped up efforts from the likes of Nokia and HTC, both of which are looking to re-establish their previously strong positions.

Sony goes it alone
Sony hopes it can avoid the mistakes of the past.

Sony was confident enough in its own prowess that it shelled out $1.47 billion to buy out Ericsson's stake in their joint venture . The thinking was that Sony could better help the business if it was one of its own units, as opposed to an independent operation.

"The problem that Sony Ericsson had was that it was at least a half step removed from Sony," Greengart said. "That's no longer an excuse."

Sony hopes to exploit its internal expertise to create a better phone. The Xperia Ion is the first example. The phone features a video engine from its Bravia television line for sharper colors and better images, an image sensor from its camera line, and access to the Playstation name via its online store of Playstation-certified games (which aren't compatible with its actual current Playstation systems).

Sony Ericsson thought it had a winner with the Playstation-inspired Xperia Play. But the phone was seen as a poor mash-up of a clunky Android phone and game controller, and failed to make an impression on consumers. Verizon Wireless had high hopes for the device, but it quickly hit the bargain bin just as AT&T began selling it.

Sneeden acknowledged that the Xperia Play focused on a niche gaming audience that was too small to support a major phone release.

Unlike the Play, the Ion has broad appeal with decent specifications, a slimmer -- if pedestrian -- design, and 4G LTE. With AT&T, it has a large carrier partner and distribution outlet. The biggest selling point is its price tag. At $99.99, Sony believes it has a compelling product.

Lackluster carrier support
Whether anyone else believes the Xperia Ion is compelling is another matter. Sony may have a fair amount of enthusiasm for the phone, but others may not share that view.

The Xperia Ion isn't considered a "hero" or flagship phone, according to a person familiar with AT&T's launch plan. Rather, it fills a slot in the mid-tier level.

At AT&T, the Xperia Ion is one of the more affordable LTE-enabled Android phones, and addresses the carrier's push to bring more affordable LTE devices on to the market. The only comparable device is the older HTC Vivid, which sells for $49.99 with a two-year contract, and the $29.99 Pantech Burst.

Its biggest competitor could be the Lumia 900, which also sells for $99.99. While the Lumia runs on the less popular Windows Phone operating system, AT&T has anxiously pushed the device and trained its sales staff to talk about and promote the phone.

It's unclear whether AT&T will put anywhere near as much energy into the Xperia Ion, despite Sony working with the carrier on the design of the phone. One of the phone's biggest weaknesses stems from Sony's decision to use Android 2.3.7, or Gingerbread, to run the phone. While Sony added a lot of features that are found in Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich, phones, the nuance may be lost to the sales staff and prospective consumers.

Sony won't just rely on the carriers. Sneeden said the company plans a substantial "above the line" campaign, which means any marketing support beyond what the carrier plans to provide. Its own sales force will provide training and support to AT&T. That's important, as indications point to AT&T providing minimal resources to the Xperia Ion.

Industry observers are giving Sony a few months of slack to get its house in order before truly laying down a verdict on its mobile prospects. Most agree that in order to stand out, the company needs to better tap into its own library of movies, shows, and music in a novel way. In addition, it needs to make real use of its Playstation business, and not just slap on a Playstation-certified name on a half-baked app store.

"It's tough to stand out," Greengart said. "Sony's brand still connotes a level of quality, but it's no longer as strong as a Samsung."

Correction: This story originally gave an incorrect date for the release of the Xperia Ion. The smartphone goes on sale at AT&T on June 24.

 

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