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Sony's mobile strategy doesn't really need you

Sony's mobile strategy doesn't really need you

With Mobile World Congress 2017 now well and truly underway, Sony's new handsets have been revealed, along with an Xperia Projector that it first showed off at the event in 2016. Sony is a global mobile brand with a lot of fans and a long heritage, but it's by no means a market leader in terms of units shipped each year. This doesn't matter really matter though, and nor do you if you think the design is getting tired, as Sony has re-angled itself in the mobile space over the last two or three years.

Why Sony's cameras matter more than most

Highlights of Sony's announcements this year are inarguably the new XZs and XZ Premium, both of which offer up the new 19 MP Motion Eye camera that can capture videos at up to 960 frames-per-second (fps), which will give you super-smooth, super-slow motion results. 

Add in that there's also a new Predictive Capture feature that snaps four images when the camera is open and it thinks you're about to take a picture. This is supposed to ensure that you're always getting the best possible snap each time you take a photo, and isn't entirely dissimilar to 'Best Shot' features found on other devices. Also like other manufacturers, Sony's moving towards using larger pixels for better low-light performance. 

xperia sony
Sony's new 'Motion Eye' camera setup.  / © Sony

There's a good reason that the company shouts loudly about every single individual feature of the camera on the official listing page, and that's because the Exmos RS mobile, G Lens and BIONZ image processing technology: it provides an excellent revenue stream when licensed to other handset rivals. 

Stasis in design

That could be why the company still opted not to update the look of the Xperia line, which has essentially remained the same for at least three years. At this point, it's almost becoming a reference device, like those used by chipmakers.

And that's fine too - Sony makes a huge amount of money licensing its camera tech to other businesses, and by extension, those devices get better cameras than would otherwise be possible for them.

It simply doesn't need to sell millions of devices to be successful, and that's a strategy that could see the company safely into the future of consumer electronics. It knew this back when it jettisoned its computer division in 2014 and it knew it when it decided to really focus on making smartphones profitable overall.

Its full fiscal year results reported in April, its most recent annual summary, showed an increase of pre-tax profits of over 660 percent. This didn't come from a huge spike in performance, and wasn't specific to its mobile division, but it was made possible by a honing of strategy, one that, most likely, is the reason why the hardware design hasn't been updated in years.

I'm by no means alone in suspecting that it's this 'showcase' approach to technology that's driving many of Sony's mobile decisions. 

"Given the challenges Sony Mobile is facing in the brutally competitive smartphone market it seems highly probable that part of the business case is now as a vehicle to promote its market leading camera sensors," Ben Wood, a mobile analyst at CCS Insight told AndroidPIT. "The Xperia XZ Premium is an extremely impressive device but the eventual volumes will be a rounding error compared to the iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy devices. However it is a tremendous showcase for the 'art of the possible' when it comes to Sony's camera technology and that can only help Sony's broader camera component business."

Beyond phones

It's an approach that the company appears to be testing in other areas too. Last year, it showed off a projector, designed for family or office use, that transforms the projected surface into a touchscreen area. It's interesting, for sure, but how many do you really think Sony expects to sell at around €1,500? It's never intended to be mainstream. 

The same is true of the Xperia Agent, an in-home device that looks to be a little like Google Home or Amazon's Alexa smart assistants, and the Xperia Touch projector. It's a company showing it can still innovate and jump on industry trends. It's showing it still has the chops to be a desirable consumer brand. 

Xperia Touch
The Sony Xperia Touch will cost around €1,500. / © Sony

"The fact that Sony is showing products such as the [Xperia] Agent and Touch but not necessarily commercializing serves different purposes. It shows they are capable of delivering products in areas that are hot with the market like the agent and content distribution like Touch," Carolina Milanesi, Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, told me. 

This in turn allows Sony to take on the role of partner in different areas. For example, the new XZ Premium handset also features a 4K display, but there's not really much 4K content available on mobile, so Sony signed a deal with Amazon so users can access what is already available. 

Sony isn't Apple

Of course, taking on the role of licensing its tech for others to use and striking up partnerships outside of its normal areas does give the company less control over its future direction. Apple became one of the most successful consumer tech companies by keeping strict control over every aspect of device creation, marketing and sales. Sony, while competing in many of the same markets at one time or another, has never achieved that level of success. 

That's not to say it can't one day, but it's not the future that looks most likely, according to Milanesi. 

"[Sony does] have a role to play in the connected home/office but the concerns are always around the fact that on paper Sony has always been the only vendor that could replicate Apple's success but never managed to."

With its financials moving in the right direction and some industry-leading camera tech once again on show at MWC, 2017 is looking to shape up well for Sony but you'd probably never guess that judging by how many Sony phones you see 'in the wild'. And that's just fine. 

Think Sony has a solid strategy? Would you like to see an updated design? Let us know in the comments below! 

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  • I really liked the Z3 Compact. Gorgeous phone. I have the Z5 Compact now. I preferred the Z3 Compact. I'd like them to bring out an updated Z3 Compact, but with more storage. I'd buy that definitely.

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  • I don't think body design is what makes Sony, you cannot veer too much from a rectangle slab; endless the go back to the Sony Ericsson Arc S (slim and curved) design.

    It's all about the hardware-software combo that will make Sony that will make it better than Apple devices. As Apple is always behind the curve of up-to-available specs offering at current time of release. I.e. When the iPhone (1st Gen) they didn’t have a flash or GPS -vs- I had a Nokia N95 with GPS 5Megapixel and flash. Granted it was all about the touch screen. When iPhone 5c and 5s was in the market 4inch screen size I had the the HTC One (M8) with 5 inch screen enjoying the feature of contact + social media merging. When iPhone 6 Plus finally surpasses 5inches with 5.5inches, but by that time I had the Sony Xperia Z Ultra at 6.2 inches and super fast processor. iPhone 7 Plus at still 5.5 1080p 12megapixel -vs- Sony Xperia Z5 Premium 4K screen with 20.7MP.

    Sure sony has it’s falling out where they didn’t update with the times; Sony P series, processors wasn’t fast as the rest of the market when HTC one (M7) came out. I think the design for the Sony’s mid-range line Xperia X, XA, XA Ultra with their bezel-less sides design… However still stuck at 16MB internal storage realm is very painful. Maybe when they struck a deal with T-Mobile it was a bad design idea to have two glass panels, especially leaving a bad taste if they crack the glass of their phones.

    I think from now-on-out with their MWC 2017 release of XZ, XA1, XA1 Ultra, finally leaving the 16GB internal space. With 32GB and 64GB options, and 4GB RAM on some models. As Google Photo’s whole campaign is about iPhone’s “out of storage notification.”

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  • I bought a Z5 about a year ago, I really loved the phone. Even when the headphone jack decided to quit, I mean what phone doesn't have a few minor problems. But then I figured out I wasn't the only one. And that Sony has now had 4 phones after it and hasn't fixed it yet! Makes me mad. I for one won't buy another Sony phone until I know for sure they have redesigned the stupid headphone jack.

    • That sucks that your headphone jack broke. That's why I'm glad Sony sell their products now at places like Best Buy now to facilitate faulty devices. Check out the Sony SBH52, SBH52, or the new SBH56; bluetooth clip that helps not to use the 3.5mm jack on the device.

  • I was going over these point's you made Ben Wood, in '9 To 5 Google' about four to five day's ago in the comment section there.
    I'm happy that a tech writer has gone to the trouble of researching this subject matter, has all of the Sony 'fanboys' if I may use that horrible term, have probably like myself only read what are derogatory opinion piece's slating Sony for price, design, also for showing off and so on.
    Sony has had this business strategy for year's since it's inception of being an innovative forward looking company, it harken's back to it's earliest day's after WW2 with it's first electric rice cooker, which was only really successful in Japan but gave them the fund's to become a solvent company, it's real breakthrough was with the much smaller transistor radio than the US's version, which sold phenomenonal amounts because Sony had curated a way to shrink the size of the transistor, the name was now a recognised brand in the West and it's legacy began there.
    They have kept this mindset of constant innovation never relying on only one product to keep an income stream, if a product idea doesn't make money, to bad, they learn by it and cut it. They know they have to make an handset as they have to keep relevant in the market, and such a big brand would look irrelevant if it were not to, but where they are most relevant even if they are losing money on the handset is it's camera division, with Samsung and even Apple are buying sensors of them among a few, innovative in this area and they are guaranteed an almost like proxy revenue via sale of it's increased technology in sensors or patents, this will put them back in the black again, and staying a name in part of the biggest tech sales namely mobile's.
    Who knows down the line Sony may well have a surprise for us all in the near future, right out of left field in it's mobile division, they have some brilliant minds working there pressed to keep the companies ethos of innovation alive.

  • I love Sony's design. If it weren't for functional reason, I rather have Sony go back to z1 square design.

    My only problem with Sony is their unwillingness to increase battery capacity. I get that software efficiency is most important, but you can't cheat hardware. A 3000 mah is still smaller than 3100 mah. Please free us human from carrying a power bank. A premium phone should not get beaten in any area by a mid range phone such as Lenovo P1 Turbo.

  • Well, this could explain the weird, lacking global distribution of Sony's devices, their disconnect with customers and the inappropriate prices.

  • Sony's design hasn't changed for at least 3 years? At MWC in 2014, Sony revealed Xperia Z2 and please don't tell us it looks the same with XZ Premium. In between, there are Z3, Z5 series and X series. These tech sites' writers are brain washed and no longer a useful source of information.

    I have seen 4K images on Z5 Premium and it is clearly sharper and nicer than FHD or QHD displays. Please, for once, see it for yourself and make your own decision.

  • People keep going on about design and bezels, fact is you need bezels for the stereo speakers which other phones do not have I'd rather have stereo sound, design nothing wrong what i can see the new xz premium looks stunning

    • I could not agree more. HTC lost me when they dropped the dual, front-facing speakers in the 10. The XZ Premium may be my next phone (and first Sony phone). When form triumphs over function (e. g., small top/bottom bezels over stereo speakers, thinness over battery capacity), the user experience suffers.

    • Take a quick peak at the ZTE Axon 7 and you can see a smartphone that has great stereo speakers in a much smaller bezel. It can be done.

      • Paolo Mar 6, 2017 Link to comment

        Yeah, the software of the Axon is an absolute non-starter for me. Good luck with the Engrish!

  • Sony as got a good name with the cameras on the phones,but the critics got at Samsung for the material and build of there phones and have not got a lot better,but Sony do not seem to realise why there phones are not selling well,as you look at every Sony phones and they All look the same with too much Bezels at the Top & Bottom at the Front of there phones and then the home button on the screen,so they are not offering consumers more vision or usage of the screens on there phones,with LG & Samsung now going to release phones with more screen usage & vision on the G6 & S8 models then Sony might be left behind again by not offering this on the Future phones,Sony as got to realise this or could be struggling to compete again

    • Did you read the article? It's about how Sony uses phones to advertise it's tech like cameras to other manufacturers, and hence hasn't bothered changing the physical design.

    • Paolo Mar 6, 2017 Link to comment

      Bezels? You're worried about Bezels? The freakout over bezels is like people sweating over buying an Acura, an Infiniti, or a BMW over their f--- door mirrors, it's insane!!! Try dropping a phone with zero bezels versus one with decent bezels, and see which one you will pick up unscathed...

  •   6
    Deactivated Account Mar 5, 2017 Link to comment

    There are about 50-100 million super premium phones sold each year compared to the average 250-300 million total devices sold each year. Sony sells about 15-20 million super premium phones a year, so that's about 5-10% of the super premium flagship market. Sony doesn't need to grab the entire mass market for increased share. In fact most consumers that desire premium phones are willing to pay $600-800 for a premium phone. However, where Sony can really compete and shine is in the midrange department. Just fit specs like a 1080p screen, Snapdragon midrange quad core chip, 2600mAh battery, 13mp back and 5mp front cam. Integrate some of the unqiue Sony features (not the expensive ones) into it and sell it for $200-300. Like take a look at the Xperia Z3, its a 3 year old phone that if produced with equivalent specs, if Sony could modify (to reduce production costs) and sell those for $250-400 a set, that midrange Z3 performance equivalent phone would definitely sell a lot. That will allow Sony to sell an additional 30-50 million phones a year and replicate partially the kind of success Apple and Samsung are experiencing worldwide and will help them improve brand recognition.

    • "There are about 50-100 million super premium phones sold each year compared to the average 250-300 million total devices sold each year. "

      Seriously dude, where did you get this information? In Q4 2016 alone, more than 400 million smartphones had been sold.

      When you said "super premium phones" did you mean the likes of Galaxy S7/edge and iPhone 7/Plus? Because if you do

      Galaxy S7/edge: about 50 million units sold
      iPhone 7/Plus: about 90-100 million units sold.

      And not to mention premium smartphones from Huawei, LG, Sony and others OEMs

      In contrast, Sony only sold about 1.5 million units of the Xperia XZ in Q4 2016.

      •   6
        Deactivated Account Mar 18, 2017 Link to comment

        That was an estimate when I said 50-100 million phones but I wasn't way off, so according to your number its more like 150 million units sold because I'm talking about the range of phones that goes over $600 and doesn't count budget Chinese brands or Chinese brands that are trying to make slightly cheaper flagships like Huawei, Xiaomi, or OnePlus. I'm mainly talking about Apple, Samsung, LG. Together they probably sell over 150 million units but I'm also counting the Xperia X and X Performance's sales too with the XZ and it did total around 8-10 million for the year based on the production capacity of the Z5 which is 10 million units per year. My numbers could be slightly off but what I'm trying to suggest here isn't exact numbers, its the fact that Sony has some position, like 5-10% of premium smartphone market share and they can expand that further if they advertise more, focus on specifications that users want, and improve features that most users have been complaining about before (like not so loud speakers, camera software). Sony has around 5% market share in the UK and approx 8% market share in Germany which they have well maintained over the last 5 years, if they really try, they can expand that to 10-12% over the next 2 years and 14-16% over the next 4 years in Germany and about 7-10% in the UK in 3 years. They just need to innovate and advertise more. I think this will be possible as Sony's 2017 fiscal operating profit is set to be near $5 billion USD, the largest profit in its history and finally money they can use to make some aggressive investments in smartphone R&D and advertising.

    • I personally do not like Sony's approach for the mid-range market. I think it floods market with Sony phones that give a chance for people to hate later. Think a mid-range phone would be step to be a first adopter to buy the next. I think they should make phones most up-to-date internal processors chip sets to give the best RAM speed as they can at current market, we are now at 4GB RAM. Not skimp out on internal storage... for the longest time Sony dragged out 16GB, and had the audacity to make a 8GB internal, 1GB RAM with it's Xperia T2 Ultra (2014), when previously Xperia Z Ultra (2013) 16 GB, 2GB RAM. They could have done the same internal chip set in a plastic body, and everyone would have been fine.

      The better strategy is to make most up-to-date devices, to lengthen the timeline of "planned obsolescence." Last year's or 2 year old device will become the mid-range phone, or the used devices become their mid-range consumer's first introduction. Ever break your phone and you want a temp phone, coming from high-rage to mid-range is horrific.

      Even if Sony keeps their design, people like familiarity and hold on to it. Apple even made iPhone SE to get those old people to let go of their freaking iPhone 4S and iPhone 4c that has no internal space. Especially those baby boomers that came from another carrier and they still want to use their iPhone 4s, are you kidding me! If you want to call 911 hunny, you should get a new phone that will get a signal.

      Old people don't want to learn a new phone, keeping only high-end phones in the market will let Sony building out it's software, and not variate to much so they can update across the board. Which leaves room for higher innovation heart rate monitors, laser temper detection, Oximeter, and beyond our imaginations now.

      • Paolo Mar 6, 2017 Link to comment

        Yeah, I understand your point, but no. If there's one thing Sony was legendary for, it was DEMOCRATIZING technology, making it accessible in a scale unimaginable to when they did it. The Walkman singlehandedly turned the music industry on its head (from radio and expensive turntables to little yellow boxes you can wear while jogging or cycling. Music became truly personal.) The PlayStation made Gaming migrate from nerd hangout time to proper, legitimate family entertainment. CyberShot cameras moved the digital camera innovation needle by leaps and bounds than what had been there before.

        Sony, if and when it decides to finally get its s--- together, could have a Renaissance period, another PlayStation moment with Xperia. They have EVERYTHING in their walls to make it work - Cybershot and Alpha camera lineage, PlayStation, the Walkman and Acoustic superiority, a design language that wouldn't look out of place at MOMA or the Guggenheim. If they wanted to, They could release a mid-range phone that had all that and could very well bring Oneplus, Huawei Honor, Lenovo, and even Samsung to their knees!

        It's a shame that their excellence in making PlayStation competitive, even superior to XBOX and Nintendo Switch, didn't carry over to Xperia - I mean, a (literally) headless chicken would do a better job than whoever's running Xperia now!!!

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