Sony Corp. Chairman Sir Howard Stringer concluded a press conference about his company’s forthcoming Android-based Internet TV yesterday with a widely quoted declaration: “This really is a very big deal.” But it wasn’t until his 50-minute sit down with an exclusive group of a dozen journalists and analysts did he get down to explaining why.
The alliance is one of strange bedfellows. Sony and Google are competitors in mobile phones and supporting services. In addition, consumer electronics companies have typically resisted the advances of high-tech companies. Sony also stands apart from many other consumer electronics companies, by pushing its own technologies and standards rather than embracing others. So Sony’s Google embrace is surprising and foreshadowing: Sony is changing its ways.
With the planned fall debut of a standalone “Internet TV” and a set-top box that brings the functionality to existing displays, the TV, Stringer said, “is no longer dumb.” By bringing the Internet and, more importantly, a cornucopia of apps to the TV, the same multimedia extravaganza that most people routinely enjoy alone on a PC or smartphone will finally make its way into the living room where they can enjoy it together.
What’s so special about a Sony-Android TV? “It’s who gets to experience it — the whole family,” Stringer said.
These announcements often come with a ton of hype. You won’t be blamed if you believe the normally understated British exec is making too much of too little. The Internet has been moving onto the TV for quite some time. Sony has itself been making hay with its “internet-connected” TVs for two years now. Moreover, there are already platforms out there such as Apple TV and Boxee. Yahoo has been pressing its connected-TV “widgets.” And Hulu certainly bridged the gap between PC and TV.
But the Sony-Google deal really does make for a King Kong — a behemoth big enough and muscular enough to move IPTV from the fringes into the mainstream of modern life. The duo may be savvy enough to make Internet TV a reality. Google gets computers, search, and the Internet; Sony knows TVs.
But something on the Sony side makes the partnership potentially more potent: Stringer has put the finishing touches on a vast management change in Sony’s TV group by turning its reins over to a group of managers who previously ran Sony’s VAIO PC, PlayStation, networking, and mobile groups.
Stringer refers to these managers as his “musketeers,” and they include Bob Ishida, senior vice president of Sony’s home entertainment group who ran the VAIO business in the U.S. and Japan for years, and Kuni Suzuki, the SVP in charge of Sony’s network products and services group. Stringer said their involvement was calculated: They don’t just get TVs, they get processors, operating systems and applications, too. Plus, they bring a “much more combative” computer industry mentality to the once, but no longer, staid world of consumer electronics. They’ve managed in a highly price-competitive, innovation-driven segment.
The cultural revolution isn’t underway just at Sony’s Tokyo headquarters. It’s also unfolding at its San Diego-based Sony Electronics Corp., which makes TVs, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and more for the U.S. market. Just two weeks ago, Sony named Mike Abary, who spent 10 years with the VAIO group, SVP of its Sony Electronics Home Division, which includes its American TV-manufacturing operation.
Thanks to the VAIO-connected execs, Sony got a jump at working with Google. It began shipping VAIO PCs with Google Chrome in January. And its Sony-Ericsson unit released an Android smartphone to the Japan market in January. As a result, Stringer believes he has a six-month advantage on his rivals.
Not be underestimated either is the fact that Google will be unleashing the thousands of independent developers already aboard the Android bandwagon, who will now be able to create apps for an OS that spans smartphones, PCs, netbooks, tablets, and now TVs.
In fact, Sony’s Abary said Android will become the platform for apps that will turn the TV into an information device as utilitarian as other computing devices — apps in numbers and in kinds we simply “can’t imagine now.”
Stringer paid homage to Google for its quick feet. When Sony called on Google to talk, it was the Google side that first proposed putting Android on Sony TVs — and other gadgets in its portfolio later, he said. Stringer contends the relationship with Google is so far “unblemished” by any major disagreements. “It’s refreshing, ” he said, referring no doubt to the often contentious alliances Sony’s long had with the likes of Microsoft and Intel.
By Stringer’s own admission, partnerships like the one it has forged with Google often turn into love-hate affairs. In an aside before his sit-down began, he said that running a corporation in today’s world of “coopitition” is like “jumping into a Viking boat where you might be handed an oar or you might be handed an axe.” In short, you never know when you’re friend, or when you’re foe.
Today, Google has handed him an oar, he jokes. After this, though, he admits who knows.