Kaz Hirai on Sony's big 2014 plans: CEO talks online TV service, 4K TV, and wearables

CNET was among a group of select journalists who sat down with Sony President and CEO Kazuo Hirai at CES 2014.

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Sony CEO Kaz Hirai
Sony CEO Kaz Hirai during CES 2014 keynote James Martin/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- "We're trying to bring a new experience to TV viewing, trying to combine live TV and access streamed content as well."

Read between the lines if you can, because Sony President and CEO Kaz Hirai wasn't dishing a lot of details on the just-announced streaming TV service he revealed during a CES keynote earlier today. But in a short roundtable discussion with a small group of journalists (including CNET) a few hours later, Hirai was clearly excited about the service that Sony promises will come to the US by the end of the year.

Still, Hirai did offer reporters a few tantalizing teases about the TV service, which has been rumored for months, confirming that it is destined to go beyond the Sony device ecosystem. "We want to serve the PS3 and PS4, and at some point in time, we expect to announce non-PlayStation devices as well," he said.

Cable competition, content partnerships
With a solid video streaming technology and infrastructure now in place, the biggest stumbling block to online, over-the-top TV services can be summed up in one word: content. Sony is in an interesting position here, as it's both a content provider (Sony Pictures, Columbia, Tri-Star) and -- now -- a distributor.

On that note, Hirai emphasized collegial partnerships and common interest with the wider universe of content providers. "It's basically sitting down with each and every one of the people we want to work with, talking about our vision, getting them on board," he said.

Hirai went on to drive home what Sony can bring to the content providers what other video startups can't: a built-in audience. "I don't know what drove Intel's decision [to drop out of its own planned online TV service], but just look at the PS3: 25 million users in the US. We bring a compelling user base to the content holders."

On competing with cable providers, however, Hirai was somewhat more equivocal. "We're not trying to compete with cable operators," he said early in the session. But he seemed to walk that statement back later: "If we're talking about live television, then it might be competitive."

The promise of wearables
The late, great Sony Walkman could be considered one of the first "wearable" devices in history. Nowadays, though, true "wearable tech" is considered the industry's next big growth area -- and Sony is clearly interested.

"We see wearables as a great enhancer to our smartphones and smartphone business," Hirai noted. "I think there's a lot of potential in that space."

The category has some unique challenges -- and opportunities, too. "You only have two wrists and one head," said Hirai, suggesting that the space is more challenging than, say, home electronics. But that can result in intense brand loyalty, too: "Once you secure somebody's personal 'real estate,' they usually stick with it."

Kaz Hirai
Sony CEO Kaz Hirai (center) takes questions from the media. John P. Falcone/CNET

All-in on 4K TV
Sony has been an enthusiastic standard-bearer of 4K video, and Hirai made clear the company had both feet planted squarely in the 4K camp. He emphasized that 4K TVs already make up a double-digit percentage of the company's overall TV revenue.

Hirai also emphasized brick-and-mortar retailers as a preferred venue for experiencing 4K products. "Given the pricing range of 4K TVs, I don't think a lot of people are going to make a decision to buy a 4K TV based on what they're hearing. We need to provide instances where the consumers will have the product displayed to them and have their questions answered."

But he's also conscious of the fact that those 4K profits won't last forever -- one reason the company's ongoing restructuring efforts need to result in a Sony that's drawing from a more diverse revenue stream. "If commoditization of 4K TVs come along -- and someday it will -- we need to be able to withstand the wave of price reductions we'll see. We need to be strong as a company to withstand the turbulence."