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Sony's smartphone play: Too little, too late

Buying out Ericsson from its handset business was a great idea--several years ago. But it may be too late for Sony to turn the ship around.

The Xperia Play was Sony Ericsson's big push into the U.S. market. It didn't fare so well. Sony Ericsson

For Sony and its handset ambitions, it may be too little, too late.

The Japanese consumer electronics giant is ending its 10-year marriage with network-equipment provider Ericsson, spending $1.47 billion to buy out Ericsson's stake in Sony Ericsson, their mobile devices joint venture.

Sony's hope: that it can move faster alone to revive what was once a healthy business through a tighter integration with its other products and media content.

While many analysts agree Sony's takeover of the business is a positive, they are skeptical that it can actually turn the handset business around. Over the past few years, Sony Ericsson has ceded a significant amount of market share to competitors. It was slow to pounce on the smartphone trend, and even now stands as a second-tier Android player. Its relationship with carriers in the major markets (read: the U.S.) remains weak.

"It's not clear to me that Sony has the juice or the positioning to make a comeback now," said Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies.

Sony Ericsson's rapid decline in the mobile arena is just the latest example of the pitfalls to which joint ventures are often heir. The joint venture is book-ended with struggles, often due to conflicting interests and the frequently halfhearted commitment of its parents.

Once one of the five largest handset vendors in the world by shipments, Sony Ericsson has largely fallen off the radar. In the smartphone business, its share lags far behind its rivals. In the second quarter, its global share of the smartphone market was 3.6 percent, according to Gartner.

In comparison, Apple's share was 18.2 percent, while top tier Android player Samsung owned 15.8 percent of the market. Early Android adopter HTC held 10.2 percent.

A merger of necessity
Sony and Ericsson got together in 2001 because neither company had a particularly strong mobile devices business. Sony's share in the global market was nearly nonexistent, and Ericsson's own business suffered from major losses. The idea was to wed Sony's consumer electronics expertise with Ericsson's experience in telecommunications and wireless technology while reducing its financial liabilities.

Sony Ericsson got off to a weak start, moving slowly to produce any noteworthy products and failing to hit its targets for profitability for the first few years.

But by 2005, the company had hit its stride by producing a music-centric Walkman-branded cellphone, and eventually following up with phones using the Cybershot camera brand and Bravia television brand.

Sony Ericsson traditionally focused on the GSM market, looking at emerging markets such as India. In the U.S., it had a role at AT&T and T-Mobile USA, but was never part of CDMA-carriers Verizon Wireless or Sprint Nextel.

Slow in smartphones
Much of the progress made by Sony Ericsson was lost once Apple and its iPhone came on the scene in 2007. The iPhone, followed by the first Android device, the G1 from HTC, which was unveiled in October 2008, put consumers on path to demanding more from their mobile devices.

Sony Ericsson, meanwhile, was struggling to make the transition to the smartphone, finally introducing its first Windows Mobile-powered device, the Xperia X1, in 2008. After some delay, the product hit the market, although it never made a dent in the U.S. market. The device, like other Windows Mobile phones of that period, offered a clunky user interface that fell short of the more sophisticated offerings from iOS and Android.

While Sony Ericsson was fiddling with Windows Mobile, its rivals were embracing Android. HTC was the first, making an early and strong mark in the smartphone business. Samsung was slower, but has since overtaken HTC as the leading Android vendor with its line of Galaxy smartphones.

Sony Ericsson didn't introduce its first Android device, the Xperia X10, until March of last year. At that point, Motorola, HTC and Samsung had all made significant moves to shore up their position.

The Xperia Play, a strange mash-up of a Sony Ericsson phone and Sony's PlayStation controller, was supposed to be its break-out hit in the U.S. It was also its first major push into the CDMA world through Verizon Wireless. Instead, it flopped as consumers embraced more conventional devices.

The joint venture's slow reaction to the changing industry dynamics may have put Sony to far behind in the game to catch up.

"In short, we don't see a change in the competitive landscape," said Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne Agee.

Utilizing Sony's assets

Sony CEO Howard Stringer speaking at the IFA show in Berlin. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The reaction to Sony taking over the joint venture was near unanimous approval.

"Sometimes when a relationship is not being nurtured or developed, it's better to go your separate ways," said Mark Sue, an analyst at RBC Capital.

Sony is expected to move quicker than its joint venture to reposition itself in various markets. Many analysts noted that the company still has a "huge uphill climb" when it comes to markets such as the U.S., but that Sony could bring quicker improvements in areas where it has been traditionally strong, such as Western Europe and parts of Latin America.

One key to the handset business's revival is the use of Sony's wealth of content, including a significant library of video, music and video games.

"The compelling content makes the most sense as a way for these guys to really differentiate themselves with Android," said Hugues de la Vergne, an analyst at Gartner. "It at least brings them to the table as a competitor."

De la Vergne said the ideal situation would be to offer up exclusive access to videos or games to carriers in exchange for marketing support for its devices.

The use of Sony's PlayStation brand is another option. Sony has been reluctant to directly link the PlayStation to its phones, but with the company taking full control of the joint venture, that is one possibility. While the Xperia Play utilized the term PlayStation Certified games, it didn't truly meld the PlayStation experience into the device. Sony's comments today suggest otherwise.

"We can more rapidly and more widely offer consumers smartphones, laptops, tablets and televisions that seamlessly connect with one another and open up new worlds of online entertainment," Sony CEO Howard Stringer said in a statement.

A lot depends on how rapidly Sony can move. Execution is key, and Sony will have to move faster than the typical 12 to 18 month product cycle, as its rivals are continuing to solidify their own market positions. The company will also have to improve its relationship with the carriers. The Xperia Play's lackluster performance likely dented its prospects in the U.S., creating a significant obstacle for Sony's future offerings.

Even then, it's unclear whether a Sony smartphone will standout in the market to consumers.

"I think Sony has largely missed the smartphone revolution," Kay said.