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Sony boss on why it won't make a plain Android phone and 4G

Pierre Perron, UK managing director of Sony Mobile, talks about how the company is speeding up its Android updates, the need for 4G and more.

Pierre Perron, UK managing director of Sony Mobile and Catherine Cherry, marketing director, were both feeling bullish about Sony's future prospects when I sat down with them at IFA after the launch of Sony's new flagship Xperia T phone.

The mobile maker used to be run separately from the rest of Sony as a joint venture with Ericsson, but last year was bought out and re-integrated into the rest of the Japanese company.

"So what?" you may think. Having so far been thoroughly trounced by Apple and Samsung, Sony hopes this will mark the transformation of its mobile fortunes.

It's betting the ability to sell the movies and TV shows it owns through its Entertainment division on the TVs, computers, tablets and phones it makes will mean its products are different enough from the competition to stand out. As proof of the strategy, Pierre offered the stat that 80 per cent of Sony's products from across the company will be networked.

For those who like the design of Sony's mobile hardware, but not the extra software it pre-loads, you're out of luck. Pierre ruled out making a vanilla Android phone with no customisations, saying it would be "incompatible" with its strategy.

He also defended the company's record on Android updates, saying that they are much better at it than a couple of years ago, and are one of the few to upgrade its 2011 line of Xperia phones to Ice Cream Sandwich.

The news that Everything Everywhere is launching the UK's first 4G network in the next few weeks should cheer them up, as their frustration on this matter was palpable. And Pierre seemed confident that, not only has Sony learnt from its past mistakes, but that it would be able to stay out of the ongoing Apple-Samsung litigation. 

Here's an edited transcript of the interview -- Pierre Perron is speaking unless otherwise indicated.  

What needs to happen for Sony to catch up with Samsung?

"I think we need to continue to launch best-in-class products -- I am not just talking about the mobile space but tablet as well. Everything is starting with the product, which is the most visible part of the consumer perspective; then, it needs to continue towards a consistent story.

"The future of this mobile business in very much in the living room. How do we bring mobile usage into the living room and how do we make consumers' lives easier when it comes to enjoying entertaining experiences, watching TV and listening to music? We strongly believe that mobile devices, and particularly smart phones, are of very strong importance in this journey.

"The second element is that, as a brand, if we really want to succeed, we need to make sure that we are consistent in the way we develop our user experience. It needs to be easy to use and one of the concrete elements that we are offering with the launch of Xperia T is the way that we have found to use NFC technology. Not just as we used to call it financial or micropayment type of things. We strongly believe that NFC is actually a very strong way to make consumers' lives easier with this one-touch listening experience.

"The third element is shouting louder and clearer into the market, so I think we continue our marketing investment to shout clearer. We need to be recognised in this very busy market, the UK one."

What went wrong in the past?

"The organisation of the company, or maybe the markets were not ready, and now that we are fully part of Sony, it is making all our lives easier. [We need to accelerate] the base when it comes to marketing, [but] marketing means that the resources that you have are strictly linked to the business that you do. So, the more we do business, the more we invest in marketing. Obviously you can't spend money that you don't have."

Catherine: "One of the things we are seeing is that since the Arc and the Arc S we've had really good consumer feedback. People who have the devices really loved them and we get really good loyalty and feedback from the the people that have them."

One of the hottest topics on CNET is Android updates. Across the industry there is a problem. Why do they take so long to roll out and what are the main barriers?

"When we are talking about upgrades, we are not just talking about upgrading from one Android version to another one, but on top of that making sure that the rest of the brand story remains consistent, relevant and [that it] takes the best out of these Android elements. We need to do a better job as a brand to continue to build this. We have been learning since two years ago... because we were starting to include everything into Android, we had to re-do everything.

"Now we have learned and I think we are actually accelerating, improving the way we upgrade our products in two ways. One is, of course, bringing the new Android platform on the new product as soon as possible, but more importantly... we are probably one of the only manufacturers that has such a clear upgrade strategy when it comes to old products. We have committed to upgrade all 2011 Xperia products. So we have learned."

Would you ever make a vanilla version of the phone with none of the customisations?

"Our strategy is to offer a unified user experience, convergence and so on. It's incompatible with a vanilla product that just provides Ice Cream Sandwich."

Catherine: "[Google has] taken a lot of the improvements that are made by the manufacturers and we have been, not officially but in some quotes, recognised as the best contributor. We are contributing a lot back into the Android platform, so a lot of the features you saw in our Gingerbread release are then seen in the software."

What needs to happen for 4G to take off in the UK?

"We want to have the infrastructure in place and commercial launch of the service as well. I think probably for the first time in the mobile industry, mobile phones [are available] earlier than the infrastructure.

"We would welcome one more operator launching 4G in the UK because we strongly believe that 4G is a major step in terms of enjoying entertainment experiences on mobile devices, in mobility. We are an entertainment company. Today, with a 3G network, you are not downloading a movie. With 4G, you could potentially see that behaviour changing, so it's important for the pure mobility experience."

How likely do you think it is that Sony might get caught up in the ongoing Apple-Samsung litigation?

"We are not involved in that, and one answer to this is that we were the first brand to launch a smart phone before any of our competitors. It was ten years ago that we launched our first smart phone. Of course we have missed some steps, [but] we strongly believe that as a brand, Sony has a lot of patents that we are using for our own purposes, and which probably make us stronger than the rest."

If you could change one thing about Sony, what would it be?

"There are lots of changes for the moment, but... a much more integrated approach when it comes to delivering our products to the consumer, more compatibility, a more consistent message, more accompanying user experiences, because the user experience is not strictly limited to one device. The user experience is also going across two devices, maybe three, maybe four, but starting with an additional device."

Why is it so hard to act as an integrated organisation?

"Why it was so hard was related to organisational issues, the silo-base of the organisation, that a lot of organisations were strong at during the 90s because it has some benefits, providing the best products... It is complicated because we are talking about a big company, but Sony is going in the right direction. One of the first examples is the unified media player that we are offering now via smart phone and the Tablet S

"For the first time ever in Sony, you can access your media applications exactly the same way, of course you can see more on a larger screen, but the logic, the philosophy, that goes into the design of this UX is absolutely the same. I was actually positively surprised to see how easy it is now to connect your smart phone to our tablet. In a couple of seconds you have tethering functionality working between your tablet [and your phone]. Those kinds of things are absolutely happening and I look forward to seeing how consumers use it."

It sounds like people are going to have to buy into a Sony world for all this to work properly. Is that going to fly?

"Sony has always said we are an open company. We are using operating systems. Sony has learned from a lot of mistakes made in the past, building closed ecosystems, and moved a few years ago to this open system, so we say we are an open company. We are working with Microsoft. We have chosen Android for our mobiles because [this is an] open operating systems. We need to build on top of that our own identity, using our DNA, and our DNA is entertainment, connectivity, living rooms.

"This is what we are doing right now; and the promise that we give to the consumer is of course you can connect your Samsung smart phone onto a TV or your Xperia onto a Samsung TV. That will work, but if you have two Sony devices, the experience will be better.

"So, no, we are absolutely not willing to say to the consumer, 'Come with us and then you will stay with us because you won't have any choice to go elsewhere.' You will stay with us because it's your choice and it will be triggered by the best experience, the computer experience. This is really the philosophy of the company. I am not just talking about Sony mobile; the Sony philosophy. We learn from the past."

How long until we see some significant changes to market share?

"When we announced the unified media player, I think it was the beginning of the year, we all said internally, 'Okay, probably in 2013 it will be ready,' and we are launching this into the market [now], so I think it will come faster than we can hope.

"The company is really committed to deliver it, which absolutely is important, from the upper part of the organisation to the lowest part of the organisation; but, it is also becoming possible because the technology is also enabling that to the task. Our microprocessors are becoming stronger and a lot smarter, smaller and stronger. We can make beautiful devices that are powerful.

"Eighty per cent of the devices that Sony will introduce in 2013 will be connected. And the 20 per cent [that are left] -- there will be absolutely no user-case to connect them. So, it's a strong commitment from the company.

"Technology-wise, the open standards are there. We are trying to standardise our Wi-Fi technologies and this is also possible because of this openness. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, we use standards and we try to be the best of the best. So, of course, that is what I think accelerate the base as well."

Catherine: "I just wanted to add another example that you can see here is the one-touch connectivity as well as the media application that he had mentioned. You probably picked up there's quite a few products which use NFC as the core technology, but the one-touch connectivity, this is another example of how we really work together to make sure that we cannot only bring a smart phone to the market that has this functionality, but also products already available that you will be able to use it with and actually connect to in that way."