So Sony CEO Kaz Hirai comes out to say that he’ll let $MSFT make the first move with the next generation console, and then try to trump them with something better.
Play not to lose. Play for second place. Again? Didn’t we see this with the Walkman vs iPod? With Sony Ericsson and the iPhone? With the Playstation Portables vs iPod Touch?
First off, as the article states they probably can’t change anything fundamental this late in the development cycle anyway. It takes Sony months to get a new hardware product out the door for the US market. There are the basic realities of engineering hardware, creating production lines and logistics of shipment. You just can’t turn a Sony hardware project on a dime and this is Playstation after all. By definition it’s one of the most technically complex product Sony builds and also touches almost every part of the company. Every organization in Sony is going to want to stick their fingers in that pie (I did with the Playstation Portable when I ran Sony Connect and Sony Media Software). That slows things down some more. The movie studio will be asked to find some tentpole picture to bundle with the device or on an updated Sony Entertainment Network (or whatever they are calling the Playstation download store these days). The same for the music label and so on. The service infrastructure will need to be updated to match the new hardware so you’re downloading content that highlights whatever new “better than Microsoft” capabilities you might have.
Even if you could adjust the hardware, the controllers, or even the services the most important thing is what about the games? The Playstation is nothing without games. It took developers months to create the right tools necessary to build games, and then to create unique gaming experiences that would take advantage of everything the Playstation 3 had to offer. If you wait on Microsoft to lead the way and then react to their new product, any time taken to revamp the Playstation internals will only delay game releases. Meanwhile developers will be getting rich from Microsoft’s new platform and Xbox Live Arcade. Eventually Playstation can catch up but why take that risk?
Sony has always had problems quickly reacting to changes in the market. Hirai’s comment shows that Sony believes that it can bring out a product at any time, market the hell out of it, and win a big share of the market. That is true for Japan, their home market, as far as that goes but it doesn’t work elsewhere in the world. Sony missed the boat on music players as the shift went from physical media (CDs and mini-disc players) to HDD and solid state storage. I was there for that one. There are also continuing challenges in coordinating the marketing between HQ and the various local subsidiaries around the world. The Playstation group, where Hirai-san came from before ascending to replace Sir Howard Stringer, was always much better at it than other groups but the problem remains.
The biggest problem I have with this strategy is the arrogance it implies. By saying that he doesn’t want to give anything away to the competition it also makes it clear he believes the competition is watching. At this point why would Microsoft care what Sony does? Apple isn’t going to change their strategy when they integrate gaming more completely between the iOS devices and the Apple TV, upending the whole game ecosystem. Microsoft is going to upgrade their hardware and make their Xbox an even more integrated part of the living room and home network (see their recent purchase of home automation startup iD8). Why do any of them care what Sony does at this point?
The only way for Sony to win is to come out quickly with a compelling hardware platform, focus on building a real developer ecosystem for it beyond games, open it up to services from the Sony subsidiary companies (so that everything doesn’t have to be filtered through Playstation HQ in Tokyo) and run like hell. Get out ahead of everyone else and make them react to you. As it seems Kaz Hirai is setting it up, they are just going to be left in the dust again.