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Sonys MP3 Revamp

If at first you don’t succeed … try again or move on?  For Sony, the answers are all relative. 

sony walkmanToday, in unrelated announcements, the electronics giant announced both that they would disconnect (e.g. shut down) their struggling Connect Music music store and also, that they will be introducing two new video-capable Walkman MP3 players.

It’s a tale of missed opportunities, bad choices, and the struggle to correct them.   As far back as 1997, Sony was poised to try and take the dominance they developed with the original Walkman into the digital MP3 world.   Back then, Sony had a joint venture with IBM for electronic music distribution.  The plan was to create both portable music players and a digital music store. 

The mistake was that Sony tried to keep it proprietary, a closed system, and they failed to pull it off.  CEO Howard Stringer has said knowingly, if we just let it open to the world, Apple wouldn’t have had a foothold. (via CEO Exchange)”  But, of course, Apple got a foot, a hand, and more in and the rest has become a part of pop culture history and business school case studies.

Sony’s Connect Music Service perpetuated the same flawed, “closed,” thinking.  It was built around a proprietary audio compression technology called ATRAC.  Sony had developed the process initially to allow a CD to be compressed to their MiniDisc products in 1992.  They improved on it and tried to force it as an MP3 alternative.  It never caught on, or had a chance to catch up to the lead of competitors like iTunes.  Now it’s done.  Some time after March 2008, the service will shut down.  Only the book component, which supports Sony’s Reader digital book technology, will remain.

The newest piece of hardware, a digital video playing Walkman, hopes to rectify past mistakes.   Instead of being “closed” or tied to proprietary systems, the new players will accept open standards. They will play music and video in formats including MP3 and Windows Media (WMA).  The players will be available in September and price for between $120 and $230.

Unfortunately for Sony, as much as open standards will be welcome, their timing may yet prove another Achilles Heel.  The marketplace is already crowded with devices, and while Sony needs to be represented by a better product, a September launch will pit them against fierce competition.  Nokia has recently launched a new media store and multimedia phones.  And far worse for Sony, the market is primed and salivating for the likely release of a new iPod generation in early September.

Sir Howard has acknowledged that Sony’s internal culture was a big contributor to failed early efforts in the MP3 Walkman projects.  He’s been trying to change that but odds are the newest device isn’t going to be the catalyst or bring redemption for missed opportunities.  The timing isn’t going to help that effort.


[Sony's product launch press release can be found here]

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