How Sony failed to Connect, again

Electronics giant had a secret weapon in its fight against Apple's iTunes, but got "unmitigated disaster" instead.

Early in 2005, more than a dozen Sony employees from the company's consumer electronics divisions gathered for an unusual meeting in the tiny Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters of digital media start-up Kinoma.

Kinoma Chief Executive Peter Hoddie, an Apple Computer alumnus, had been put in charge of high-profile Sony software development, including the Connect digital music project. For a company historically averse to using outside technology, this was a significant step.

For more than two hours, the group met in the futon-lined public area of Kinoma's offices. According to attendees, Hoddie gave a sales pitch, but not much more. When asked for details on the technology they'd be using for Connect, Hoddie declined to provide them, and the meeting turned contentious before breaking up, employees said.

Programmers went to work on the project, intended to be Sony's answer to Apple's iTunes. But the tone had been set for a dysfunctional mix of politics, programming and pique that would prove deeply destructive to Sony's digital music ambitions. Fourteen months later, a disastrous product launch doomed Sony's latest attempt to catch Apple.

"There were a lot of problems with Connect, but there were some things that could have gone right," said one Sony employee familiar with the project's history, who like most of the insiders interviewed for this story, asked to remain anonymous. "The software was on a trajectory to be OK. But that got wiped out."

The effects continue to resonate inside Sony. On Tuesday, CEO Howard Stringer informed the company that Phil Wiser, a Connect champion inside Sony and chief technology officer for Sony Corp. of America, would be leaving effective Friday, sources close to the company said.

Wiser is leaving to join a Silicon Valley-based digital home entertainment firm called Building B, according to a source familiar with his plans. The Connect division is being taken over by Steve Bernstein, a Sony senior vice president who previously oversaw the company's Media Software group.

A Sony representative declined to comment for this story, or to provide Sony executives to discuss the company's music business. Hoddie also declined comment.

The effort to reel in iTunes opened the door to Sony's ultimately unsuccessful flirtation with another company's technology--a relationship that's continued in Kinoma's oversight of Sony's highly touted eBook project.

Why did the electronics giant turn so uncharacteristically to an outsider for technology so critical to its future?

Past and present insiders at Sony say Apple's meteoric rise in music has left top Sony executives with both respect and envy for Apple's products, even while they resist becoming dependent on Microsoft's digital music technology.

Kinoma and Hoddie appealed to their envy of Apple and their aversion to Microsoft.

From QuickTime's creation to Sony's secret weapon
Hoddie is far from a household name. But he's well known in digital media circles.

Before striking out on his own, Hoddie spent 10 years at Apple, serving as team leader and chief architect of the company's early QuickTime multimedia software project. People who worked at Apple during that time say much of the early code was Hoddie's, and in the days before it was ported to the Windows platform in 1994, he was one of the only people at Apple to have a full picture of the software's code base.

"He was an absolutely brilliant individual, and one of the great treasures of Apple," said Jonathan Hirshon, a technology marketing consultant who served as a technology evangelist on Apple's QuickTime team.

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