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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.

Stringer, the company's first non-Japanese CEO, launched his current reorganization of Sony last fall with a promise to break down those silo walls, improving coordination between divisions and product groups. That will take a diplomat's graceful touch as well as an engineer's credibility.

By all accounts, Schaaff has both.

In a string of interviews, former colleagues described him as calm and intelligent, with a keen ability to understand social dynamics as well as computer code. He listens deeply, absorbs information and reflects before making a decision, with little desire to seek the limelight himself, they said. Wiltgen called him a calming "anti-Steve Jobs."

"If you look at the want ads for Sony Electronics, you don't get the same kind of pay scale you get at Apple, or the same kinds of rewards."
--Richard Doherty, analyst, Envisioneering

Schaaff started his career at a small Vermont company called New England Digital, well-known in media circles for creating the powerful Synclavier digital music synthesizer. The founders of the company hired him directly out of Dartmouth College, where he graduated in 1982 with a degree in mathematics and social sciences.

The Synclavier was then used widely for movie sound effects, and NED worked closely with studios including Lucasfilm. The company's co-founder, Cameron Jones, remembers the young Schaaff as the one staffer able to bridge a cultural gap, seeking to understand how the moviemakers actually worked.

"Tim was able to extract himself from the technological soup that we geeky types were in, and relate to the sound engineering work force in a very human and open way," Jones said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "He's really in tune with his relationships to other people, which a lot of other technical managers are not."

In the early 1990s, NED was slipping financially downhill. The company had used Apple computers in its own products, and had already sent employees to the Macintosh maker. Schaaff left for Apple in 1991, initially working on speech synthesizers, and ultimately climbing the ranks to head up the company's QuickTime engineering team.

That role brought him early on into close contact with Microsoft, which was developing its own multimedia software in the mid-1990s. In a deposition given in 1998 as part of Microsoft's antitrust trial, Schaaff detailed meetings with Microsoft executives who pressured him to stop developing the QuickTime media player for Windows.

"The conversation was sort of, 'You guys really should reconsider your efforts to establish QuickTime as a standard for playback. We are a very strong competitor, and we usually win in these matters, so you might want to give up now,'" he told attorneys in that 1998 deposition.

His interviews were damning on other fronts, too. He testified that Microsoft executives told him they weren't afraid of antitrust suits because the government moved too slowly to be effective. He said the executives told him it was routine practice for Microsoft employees to delete e-mails that might later be used in court.

As Apple's fortunes waxed, Shaaff's effect on the industry grew. He was an early and strong supporter inside the company for supporting open industry standards and played a key role in driving the company to participate in the Moving Picture Experts Group's standards-setting process.

"Tim was convinced of the advantages of open standards," said Kevin Marks, a five-year QuickTime veteran who now serves as lead engineer at Technorati.com. "When QuickTime adopted MPEG 4 codecs and got the QuickTime file format adopted into MPEG 4, it was a big move towards open standards, which paid off for Apple."

Most of Apple's latest multimedia technology, including the QuickTime 7 high-definition video, and the audio and video formats used by the iTunes digital download store, is based now on those open standards.

To an extent rare inside Apple, Schaaff also played an active role in cross-industry groups and in working with outside partners. He helped found the Internet Streaming Media Alliance, which tries to help different online media technologies work together.

That work also brought him into close contact with a wide range of Sony's different divisions, which used QuickTime for products such as cameras, computers and other devices. That contact put him squarely in the company's sights.

Software czar at a hardware company
The software business at Sony will be very different than at Apple. Sony watchers say that the company has never put a high premium on software development, paying their programmers relatively poorly compared with many Silicon Valley companies, while putting more emphasis on the hardware itself.

Those divisions that have attracted good programmers, like the Vaio computer division, have held tightly to their staff rather than sharing with other groups, said Envisioneering analyst Richard Doherty.

"If you look at the want ads for Sony Electronics, you don't get the same kind of pay scale you get at Apple, or the same kinds of rewards," Doherty said. "They couldn't build up the kind of software infrastructure in America that Cupertino (Apple's hometown) could."

Perhaps Sony's biggest software black eye has been the initial release of the Connect music download service, launched in May 2004 as an iTunes rival. The service, and the associated software, drew criticism for being buggy and hard to use.

Other, smaller problems such as temporary incompatibility between Sony's different products have also plagued the company in recent years.

Some who know Schaaff predict that he will push the company toward an embrace of open standards, as he did at Apple. Others say he's just the kind of diplomat that can make the different divisions tie their software efforts together for the first time.

Early tasks will include some big product releases. The Sony PlayStation 3, one of the company's biggest launches in years, is coming out later this year. CEO Stringer also indicated that a new iPod rival is on its way.

For now, Schaaff is still settling into his role as American overseer of many Japanese divisions, however.

"He's a very good fit with Japanese executives, because he's measured and calm and very mature," Stringer said in early January. "We think of this as a very big deal. We're very excited."