According to a recent study by market researchers at the Reputation Institute, Google and Sony top the list of the world’s most reputable companies among consumers in 24 countries. Given that star power, the two would seem like natural partners to launch a new consumer platform like Google TV.
In fact, Sony is about as unlikely a consumer electronics partner as Google could find. Though renowned as a consumer electronics innovator, its expertise has long been in electronics engineering, not integrated software platforms. For Sony to succeed with Google TV it’s going to have to prove itself adept at a new set of skills and a new approach to marketing.
However, for all its stellar reputation, Sony has never been the collaborative type. It has a long history, dating back at least to the Betamax, of hoarding its own technology and sticking to it stubbornly, even long after the rest of the industry — to say nothing of consumers — has moved on.
In the case of the VCR, for example, Sony was parsimonious in licensing its Beta technology, which allowed rival JVC’s VHS system to become the industry standard. Sony stuck with Beta anyway, even after its market share fell below 20 percent. It was only after movie companies stopped issuing movie cassettes in the Beta format, causing its remaining market share to evaporate, that Sony finally gave in and adopted VHS.
It also stuck with Memory Stick long after the rest of the world had coalesced around NAND flash-based standards like SD and Micro SD. It continued marketing ATRAC-only portable music players after the rest of the world had adopted the MP3. In all of those cases, Sony stuck to its engineering guns, even as its market share dwindled.
Where Sony has attempted to collaborate, its efforts have often been more self-serving than collegial. In the mid-1990s, the company sought to persuade the industry to adopt its Multimedia CD format (MMCD), based on Sony’s (and Phillips’) CD technology, over the superior DVD format, for prerecorded video. A format war that could have poisoned the launch of digital video discs was averted only at the last minute, when Sony backed down under threat of a possible antitrust investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.
It later triggered a war anyway by insisting on launching its Super Audio CD format despite broad industry support for DVD Audio, causing confusion in the market and helping turn consumer off to high-resolution audio generally.
On rare occasions, Sony’s stubbornness has won the day. It’s Blu-ray format outlasted Toshiba’s HD DVD to become the industry standard. But even there, the two-year format war slowed overall consumer adoption of high-def video, hurting Sony along with everyone else.
Given that history, Sony’s early involvement with Google TV can only be seen as a major departure for the company. Not only does the partnership suggest a new willingness on Sony’s part to work collaboratively with other technology providers, it marks a rare embrace by Sony of a technology platform based on open standards.
Google TV is available to any electronics maker that wants to adopt it, as many no doubt will. Sony has no proprietary claim on the underlying technology or on the licensing of the platform, which is controlled by Google.
In order to differentiate its “smart TVs,” then, Sony is going to have to learn to innovate in the realm of software, services and applications, rather than hardware engineering.
While Sony Chairman Howard Stringer has jaw-boned the the importance of software design and network-based services to the company’s future, most of Sony’s efforts to date in that area, the PlayStation Network being the best example, have hugged familiar shores. With Google TV, Sony is venturing into what are, for it, uncharted waters. Whether it sinks or swims could determine whether Sony even has a future.