Yes, Sony makes phones. And they're coming back to the US

Sony is virtually invisible in the US, but it's vowing to make buying its Android phones easier. Now it just needs to get people to seek out an Xperia device.

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3 min read

Don't call it a comeback. Sony phones never really made much of an impression in the first place.

The Sony brand is a household name when it comes to televisions and the PlayStation video game console, yet few people in the US know the Japanese conglomerate also makes phones.

Sony wants to change that, and has vowed to return to the US in a bigger way with its newly unveiled smartphone family.

"We're committed to coming to the US with these Xperia X phones," said Don Mesa, head of North American marketing for Sony Mobile, in an interview Monday. "This year represents a new chapter."

Sony is yet another company to use this year's Mobile World Congress trade show as a springboard to re-enter the mobile business and as a chance to present itself as a legitimate premium alternative to Apple's iPhone or Samsung's Galaxy S line. Hewlett-Packard on Sunday unveiled a Windows 10 phone that can turn into a laptop, its first handset in two years, while the CEO of onetime phenom Nokia hinted at a return to the phone business.


The Xperia X is one of three new phones that will hit the US in the summer.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

One of the key reasons for Sony's struggles has been a mixed relationship with the carriers, the wireless providers through which most people buy phones. The company saw moderate success at T-Mobile, but struggled when it switched its focus to the larger Verizon. In June, Sony showed off the Xperia Z4v, which it customized for the US's largest carrier, but delayed the phone for so long that it actually released the next-generation Xperia Z5 internationally first. Verizon scrapped the then generation-old Xperia Z4v before it was even released.

In February, Sony quietly released the Xperia Z5 in the US through Amazon, several months after its debut elsewhere.

For the midtier Xperia X, low-end Xperia XA and premium Xperia X Performance, as well as the Xperia Ear Bluetooth headset accessory, Sony will forego the traditional route of selling through a carrier and offer the phones on its own site or through retailers such as Amazon. Mesa said he was still working through the deals with other retailers, including physical stores.

The advantage of going directly to the customer is a phone maker's ability to present its whole product lineup in the best light and to "tell the story behind it," Mesa said. In addition, bypassing the carriers means Sony can bring buyers the latest phones as they become available around the world. "We've always held back," he said.

But the direct-to-consumer strategy is risky, and plenty of competitors are also going that route. Chinese companies such as Huawei, ZTE and Alcatel have all set up their own online shops -- some through Amazon -- to sell their phones. The devices tend to be cheaper, although they usually pack in quality components.

"We have to show our clear technical advantage," Sony Mobile US President Kunihiko Shiomi said in an interview. "This is not easy, but we have to try."

Sony won't likely be able to just sit back and hope for the phones to take off.

"A lot of it will depend on things like marketing spend (which I don't anticipate much)," said IDC analyst Ramon Llamas. "The new smartphones don't do too much to stand out against the competition."

Mesa said Sony hadn't figured out how much it would commit to marketing and building the brand in the US. "We won't spend willy-nilly," he said.

Sony hopes to target people who stream a lot of videos and other consumer content. It'll lean on established brands such as PlayStation, Mesa said, although he squashed the idea that Sony had considered giving its phones the PlayStation name.