What is Sony?

As a company Sony is completely different to Nintendo and Microsoft. Sony is a manufacturer of boxes containing electronics which has a strange obsession. Once upon a time they were the “in” brand with good looking kit that worked well but now they are looking a bit middle aged and have missed out on major market areas and been convincingly outperformed by newer kids on the block such as Apple, Nokia and Samsung. Sony own a lot of technology and are a fully vertically integrated manufacturer. They own everything from chip factories to retail shops.

Being a box manufacturer Sony is very welcoming of third party content, being just a box manufacturer they really desperately need to have other people make this content in order for people to want to buy their boxes. It was this emphasis on third party development that made the games industry what it is today. Sony wanted as much different content from as many different publishers and developers as it is possible to produce. It doesn’t bother them if there are (by example) four different rally games that all do the same thing, let the market decide what it wants. This policy worked amazingly well. The games software industry grew enormously and Sony walked all over Nintendo. Virtually all the major games publishers owe their current position to Sony.

Sony’s strange obsession is media formats. Gillette can make a loss selling their latest razor because they make such enormous profit on the blades that only they make for that razor. Sony try to do the same with electronics, hence their love of games consoles. Famously they lost the video recorder war between Betamax and VHS which has scarred their action and thinking ever since. In a move that they thought would give them the upper hand they invested hugely to become a major content provider (publisher) in both the record and the film industries. This investment was intended to prevent Sony media formats falling on their face ever again. It hasn’t.

When Sony designed the original Playstation they fitted it with a CD drive, a media that they had jointly developed with Philips.  For PS2 they fitted a DVD drive, but this time they were a smaller player in the consortium that created the media so now they are using PS3 as a Trojan Horse for the Blueray standard which they jointly own with Panasonic. The PS3 (alongside the Sony film studios) is the front line of their battle against the HD DVD standard of their competitors. It is worth noting that the companies that have outperformed Sony at making boxes in recent years, Apple, Samsung and Nokia, have no interest whatsoever in media standards. It could be argued that their lack of such an obsession has given them clearer minds to give the customers the boxes full of electronics that they want.

I was at E3 when the PSP was launched with Sony’s latest attempt to create a new media standard, the UMD drive. Nintendo launched the DS at the same E3 and when I told some of the Codemasters directors that I thought that the DS would be the most successful of the two devices they laughed. Sony was at the height of their PS2 pomp and could do no wrong. So we wasted lots of money putting the wrong sort of games onto the PSP whilst putting nothing on the DS. A clearer understanding of the two companies may have prevented that mistake.

Sony’s obsession with media standards could end up making them come third in the current console generation war. By using an expensive Blueray drive and an expensive Cell processor (another new Sony standard) they have created a console that costs a lot more to make than it’s competitors’ consoles whilst at the same time not being appreciably better. If they had just wanted to make a good console, without any political influence from the rest of the company, Sony could have created something that was both better and cheaper to make. They really have shot themselves in the foot.

So there we have it. Sony is a manufacturer of boxes with a strange obsession. Am I right or is there more to this? Post your comments if you think so.


  1. I think I mostly agree – the strange format obsession stretches farther, of course, to the woeful Memory Stick, to AVHCD, etc.
    I had the same argument with dev guys, urging them to develop for the DS (‘no, it’s a kids’ toy) and, later, for the Wii, both summarily dismissed as not good business sense. Now we see publisher/ developers scrabbling madly to make up for lost time and get their games on Wii….while, all along, smarter outfits like EA or Ubisoft actually just supported it from the start.

  2. EA did not support the Wii when it launched. They have actually called themselves out on this. That’s why they have had to scramble themselves and creating sub-par games such as “Boogie.” Good idea I suppose, but seems very rushed

  3. Before the Playstation 3, I think as far as consoles were concerned Sony’s efforts to push there own standard on consumers was largely successful. Nintendo followed a pretty similar path as well I believe (between their refusal to go CD based for the N64 and their different CD format for the Gamecube to prevent more piracy). Sony has definitely appeared to roll the dice each console generation with formats, but up until the PSP and PS3 it seemed to pay off so I understand the cocky attitude they must have felt until now. As for other branches of the Sony war machine I have complete tunnel vision. Very interesting blog.

  4. I agree with a lot of your points. Certainly, Sony could have created a cheaper console by using more off-the-shelf components, as Microsoft did with the Xbox 360. Of course, the flip side is that Sony’s manufacturing bent certainly shows in the quality of the PS3. It could be argued that the PS3 is, indeed, an appreciably better console than the 360 from a hardware perspective. In fact, the surprise to me is how relatively poorly constructed the 360 is, given that Microsoft took a much simpler hardware route than Sony. Oh well, it will be interesting to see how Sony reacts to the lessons it is learning now.

  5. I agree with Sony’s obsession but then again, it does make theirs unique, and the brand stays everywhere their boxes go.

    I think it’s not just about making money, although in a marketing/business point of view it should be, but how far has other companies brought this industry and the electronic industry as a whole forward like Sony? Would DVDs be like it is today if it wasn’t for them? Would HD be recognized this early if it wasn’t for them?

    The other companies might be selling more but they are not moving forward as fast as Sony. You gotta say there is an advantage to their hunger for boxes.

  6. Great post. I have to say, I too felt that DS would trump Sony’s PSP when both where paraded at E3 for the first time. The touch screen and stylus, mic, wifi local and online play, the DS seemed more thought out in what Nintendo wanted it to do. All those options of play for creating fun games went into my head, resulting in a big picture of some cool games.

    Unfortunately, many others were too blinded by the shiny PSP screen and tech to see this possibility of DS going TKO on it. Good proof that its not about tech, just well put together and fun games.

    Sony need to recover from their Betamax days. Agreed they done well with PS1 and PS2, but its always dangerous easy for a king to get too big an ego, underestimate the competition, and not learn from their mistakes.

    I worried when PS2 tried to sell itself on the fact it could play films DVDs, which wasn’t so bad for most early dvd adopters. However, when I saw Sony trying this same trick with PS3, I knew their game and wasn’t happy about it. The price is still too high and they’ve forgotten this is a games industry, not a film one (which happily takes care of its own bed, never plugging games positively in return). I know I won’t be buying until that huge price gets reasonable.

    I hope Sony enjoy the taste of humble pie, we all get a slice sometime or another.

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