Sony software czar's big challenge

Former Apple exec Tim Schaaff expects to make sense of Sony's software plans. He'll need all the diplomatic skills he learned working with Steve Jobs.

Sony's new software czar, Tim Schaaff, knows a little something about handling companies in turmoil.

In early 1997, Schaaff headed Apple Computer's QuickTime engineering team. The computer maker was in internal upheaval, as the newly returned Steve Jobs cleaned house, jettisoning people and products he felt had contributed to the company's fall from grace.

The QuickTime group, which had grown used to almost complete independence, appeared on the surface to be one of the worst suited to Jobs' newly centralized regime. But former employees say that Shaaff's "zen-like" influence managed to mollify Jobs and keep the group intact to an extent rare across the company at large.

"It's a myth that the Japanese don't do software well. But it has been difficult for us to coordinate software development across all silos."
--Howard Stringer, CEO, Sony

"The engineers who ran QuickTime were used to making their own decisions when Steve came in with his people," said former QuickTime evangelist Charles Wiltgen, now a Qualcomm product manager. "They were also very intelligent and very headstrong. Tim was one of the few people who could have made a love connection between those groups."

Fast-forward to the present. The 46-year-old Schaaff has now become one of Sony's brightest hopes, plucked from Apple late last year to fill the newly created role of senior vice president of software development, coordinating software efforts across the company's sprawling corporate divisions for the first time.

To some, the Sony he is joining looks much like mid-1990s Apple. It is a company with a stellar hardware past but a shallow software portfolio. It has creative but insular product groups, which often communicate poorly if at all. It is in the midst of a historic upheaval aimed at reversing a long slide down from the market's top.

Sony quietly announced Shaaff's hiring just before Christmas last year. CEO Howard Stringer said a few weeks later that the company had been "a bit delicate" with the news, but that it was putting tremendous faith in Schaaff's capabilities.

For the first time, Stringer said, the company would have a way to avoid the duplication and incompatibilities that have emerged as different Sony divisions, often called "silos," have developed their own software for various products such as music players, TVs and game machines.

"It's a myth that the Japanese don't do software well," Stringer said at a press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. "But it has been difficult for us to coordinate software development across all silos. That's a great waste of resources."

Schaaff himself could not be reached for this story. A Sony representative said he was still settling into the company and was not yet available for interviews. Apple representatives also declined to comment.

Engineer with a diplomat's touch
Any role coordinating divisions at Sony is inherently difficult. The different parts of the company are notoriously independent and have staunchly resisted reorganization efforts under previous management.

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