Sony finally puts full weight behind Xperia phones

Sony executives tell CNET how they feel about Samsung taking its own marquee feature -- a dust and water-resistant body -- and putting it in the Galaxy S5.

The Xperia Z2 is a nice looking phone. But because the Xperia Z1s just launched with T-Mobile, it will be months before it gets to the US. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain -- You would think Sony's mobile executives would be even a little nervous.

After all, for more than the past year, they have been touting one unique feature for a premium smartphone: the ability to withstand dust particles and be dunked underwater.

So there must have been some cause for concern when Samsung said its flagship Galaxy S5 -- unveiled just hours after Sony's own flagship phone and tablet announcement -- would also be resistant to water and dust, right?

Not really.

"We started the waterproof trend," Ravi Nookala, head of Sony's US mobile division, told CNET in an interview. "We're not worried about it."

Bold words from what amounts to the new kid on the block for smartphones. While Sony is still a force to be reckoned with in areas such as televisions, video games, and cameras, it has struggled to make a name for itself when it comes to phones.

But Sony hopes that will change, particularly in the US market, where the company believes it can more fully take advantage of its heft and influence in the consumer electronics market to push its smartphones.

Nookala called the Xperia Z1S, currently being sold in the US by T-Mobile, a turning point for the company and the first time Sony has brought its full resources behind the device. The company, for instance, is specifically targeting T-Mobile customers who are also PlayStation fans, knowing there's already a brand affinity there, and offered discounts on the phone for anyone who purchased a PlayStation 4. The Xperia Z1S also came preloaded with the Sony PlayStation app, and some customers who bought the phone got a one-year membership to PlayStation Plus.

A new "One Sony"
While Sony has famously been siloed in the past -- with different businesses and units working without any coordination or knowledge of what the others are doing -- Nookala said he is on the phone with the PlayStation team at least once a month, talking not only about the products, but common marketing strategies.

"[CEO Kaz Hirai] talks about One Sony, and it's starting to become a factor," he said.

The next big campaign is the FIFA World Cup, the world's largest sporting event where Sony just happens to be a sponsor. Nookala pointed to June as the next potential catalyst to spark sales and boost the perception of the company.

"It's a good way to bring this into the mainstream," said Calum MacDougall, director of product marketing for the Xperia franchise, in the interview.

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The sales pitch for the Xperia Z1S isn't just the hardware, but also the media content and family of accessory devices that are created by Sony itself, Nookala said. Whether they are Bluetooth speakers and headphones, those sorts of accessories are rarely made by the smartphone vendor themselves.

In addition, Nookala explained that the company had initially wanted to focus on locking down the Japanese and European markets. Now that there is stability in those areas, it is bringing its eyes back on to the US.

Nookala said he was pleased with how well the Xperia Z1S has performed at T-Mobile, noting the carrier was happy with it as well. Sales of the phone have exceeded expectations, with sales of the Xperia Z1S 25 percent above its predecessor, the Xperia Z.

MacDougall said that the awareness of Sony's brand in connection to smartphones has grown significantly over the last 18 months.

Lingering questions
Not everything is rosy for Sony. While it appears to have a strong relationship with T-Mobile, it doesn't yet have other partners, a big no-no at a time when a true flagship phone launches on virtually every carrier in the US.

In addition, Sony's focus on the show wasn't on the recently launched Z1S, but the newly unveiled Xperia Z2, which represents a step up in terms of specifications and includes video recording features from its Handycam unit. But the Xperia Z2 won't be coming to the US anytime soon because the Z1s just launched earlier this year.

Nookala declined to comment on timing of availability or who would carry the phone, but it's likely that the Z2 could launch in time for the World Cup to take advantage of the media attention.

He added he was working on shortening the window between the device announcement and when it actually hits the market, and said he was talking with some of the other carriers.

MacDougall said that Sony has a goal of being No. 3 in the world and offering consumers a legitimate alternative to Apple and Samsung.

But that looks increasingly tough as the Chinese vendors appear ready to dominate with superior scale and the ability to reach both the ultra high and low end of the market.

Even in the US, Nookala conceded that Sony's share was "significantly low." A company like ZTE, meanwhile, has shown faster growth by supplying a number of carrier partners with affordable phones.

CNET's full coverage of Mobile World Congress

Sony doesn't seem interested in pursuing the low end. While the company unveiled a mid-tier phone in the Xperia M2, it doesn't want to go too cheap and damage the brand.

"Our focus is to secure value, not volume," MacDougall said.

He argued that the M2 would be a competitive device in emerging markets, where the Sony brand remains strong.

Start of a dialogue
Going back to the Galaxy S5, both MacDougall and Nookala expressed confidence that the overall rise in interest in dust and waterproof phones will benefit Sony and the Xperia Z line.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

"It starts a dialogue for waterproof and helps us tell our story," MacDougall said.

There are currently water tanks in 700 T-Mobile stores where salespeople can demonstrate how the Xperia Z1S can be dunked in and still function, including taking underwater photos. T-Mobile salespeople are aware that the phone is waterproof, and Nookala expressed confidence that it will be brought up when customers ask about the Galaxy S5 and its own waterproof nature.

Nookala understands the importance of a well-educated sales force, and said he has a staff of 30 people tasked with visiting T-Mobile stores to provide training and to ensure its products are well maintained and front and center.

Otherwise, waterproof or not, Sony's Xperia line risks getting swept away when Samsung's Galaxy S5 arrives.

 

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