Whether the steep discounts of Sony (NYSE: SNE) Internet TV over the weekend was a savvy ploy or a sign of weakness is subject to interpretation. But here’s what isn’t: Sony Corp. CEO/chairman/president Howard Stringer could really use a home run right about now.
Bloomberg reported late last week that Sony wants Stringer to cede the president portion of his tripartite title to another executive who would be groomed his successor. Whether that’s true or not–or whether Stringer likes it or not–his legacy may be judged more than anything by the achievements he manages to rack up in the waning years of his tenure. Which makes Sony’s Google (NSDQ: GOOG) TV-powered new product one to watch closely.
While it’s absurdly early in the lifecycle of Google TV to brand it a bust even if the $200 discount going into Cyber Monday was indication of underwhelming market traction, Stringer has to be wishing this will evolve into something big. That’s for no other reason that over the five years he’s overseen the Japanese juggernaut, he’s done little more than trim the fat and rearrange the deck chairs to salvage Sony’s margins. The story of Sony for too long has been the loss of its ability to create iconic products as it once did with the Walkman while churning out me-too heel-nippers to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) (iPod) and Nintendo (Wii) and Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) (Kindle). Winning the Blu-Ray format war was nice, but not enough.
But if there’s any sector where Sony holds out hope of banging out the kind of gamechanger to join that aforementioned elite group, it’s the TV set. Don’t let the current focus on all these TV companions like Boxee or Blu-Ray fool you. A standalone TV powered with more than just an Internet connection, but the right processing speed, user interface, form factor and price point can kill all comers in a category where just about every market entrant is hobbled by the fact that consumers want to subtract hardware in the living room, not add.
As long as Apple continues to stop short of extending its innovation acumen beyond the add-on of Apple TV, Sony has as good a chance as anyone at doing what someone will inevitably do in the next few years: reinvent the TV set. Its Bravia line of Internet-connected monitors may not be what it takes, nor Google TV. In the latter instance, Google TV may seem like a commodity in this industry soon if the Bloomberg report is true that competitors Vizio and Toshiba will unveil their own tie-ins at CES in January.
Yoshihisa Ishida, Sony’s lead TV executive and one of the so-called “Four Musketeers” who are considered the best bets to succeed Stringer, seems to have the right idea. He told The Wall Street Journal he’s out to “change the perception of the TV,” but the very same Nov. 27 story outlines some of the tough challenges he’s going to face in a brutal market. Sony is already cooling its jets on a joint venture with Sharp for LCD TVs, according to Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun, citing a global slowdown in set sales.
There’s only one way Stringer can counter that kind of lagging demand: turning that change of “perception” into reality.