"Commoditization" was the word on the lips of a Sony product executive here at the 2007 Line Show, the annual display where the electronics giant shows off its new wares. Ideas of how to combat commoditization ranged from multiple color options for notebook PCs to deeper concepts like personal weather and traffic feeds on a TV.
Thanks to the rapidly falling prices of PCs and televisions, consumer electronics manufacturers are intent on selling products that have a little something extra and give consumers a reason to choose their higher-priced product over a less-expensive version.
Words like "lifestyle," "emotional" and "experience" were bandied about here far more liberally than technical specifications, and this year's lineup of products reflected the emphasis on customization.
, has said it before: Flat-panel televisions, like LCDs and plasma TVs, carry the cachet of a so-called "lifestyle product" with consumers, much more so than your standard tube television.
"Industrial design, how it fits in a person's home," are some of the most important criteria when mainstream consumers go television shopping today, said Phil Abram, vice president of television at Sony.
In a briefing on Tuesday about upcoming Sony strategies, TV faceplates, or bezels, were one of the first topics of discussion, even though they're unrelated to the actual technology of the TVs. "Colored bezels will continue," Abram said, adding that part of Sony's trend toward personalization this year will include more color options. Their popularity "surprised even us," he said.
Getting more technical, Sony talked up the Bravia Internet Video Link technology that was first revealed at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show. Sony's goal is to offer more choices than cable or satellite companies by allowing the downloading of online video content from providers like Yahoo, AOL, Grouper, and someday perhaps even Netflix, with no need to interface with a PC at all. Beyond entertainment, the technology also has a daily practical application: it delivers personal traffic, weather and RSS feeds directly to the TV screen.
Sony said that in the future, personalization will also be a major part of its strategy for Vaio notebooks in order to differentiate them from vastly cheaper options from other brands.
"There's been a huge erosion of prices," said Mike Abary, vice president of Vaio. "There were instances where (retailers) were instant rebating to a net zero price." The continuing commoditization makes it a challenge not only to add value in the crowded marketplace, but also to turn a profit, Abary added.
Sony's solution, apparently, is more color. Last year, Vaios became available in blue, red, brown, white, orange and green. The move beyond standard PC shades of gray, white and black proved popular--which is unsurprising considering the ubiquity of pink Motorola Razrs and red iPods today.
Women, in particular, responded well to the new color options, Abary said. He said Sony will capitalize on that trend by introducing an option to custom-engrave the covers of , potentially even working with both mainstream and street artists on the design.
Sony is also being more adventurous in the design of the its new living room PC, the VGX-TP1. It's white, glossy and round. So why isn't it a square, black box like all of Sony's other living room products? It's intended to blend into the decor, which makes the living room PC choice a "personal, emotional experience," said Hideyuki Furumi, president of Vaio.