How Google Can Save… Sony? Yes, Sony.


Though it may now be hard to remember, there was a time that Sony was the company that led the tech world. Sony, after all, were the people who helped bring us the Walkman and the CD player. For years, the Sony brand was synonymous with cutting edge technology and sophisticated design.

But while Sony are still a powerhouse in the world of tech, it’s now common knowledge they are no longer its leaders. We all know why: their commitment to closed, proprietary technology hurt them immensely in the internet age and now, other more web-savvy companies dominate ourĀ  new media world. Apple are now the go-to innovators in design and functionality; Nintendo and Microsoft have leapfrogged Sony this gaming generation; and Samsung, Panasonic and others make consumer tech that is just as good, if not better, than Sony’s.

It’s true that Sony have improved lately. Having returned to profitability last quarter, the Playstation 3 is now finally hitting its stride; with its Reader line, the company has showed a commitment to open technologies; and Internet TV (discussed in the video above) seems to at least be thinking outside the box.

But in the face of incredibly tough competition, it’s not enough. To churn out one or two decent products is not enough in a world that relies on integrated ecosystems and a tight connection between software and hardare.

No, what Sony needs is to build on what it has started with InternetTV. To put it simply, what Sony needs is Google.

Why Sony Needs The Search Giant

Before the rise of the web, consumer tech evolved by getting more and more sophisticated for the end-user. CDs were better than tapes, DVDs were better than VHSs and so on. But today the bulk of innovation is about making smart software so that hardware does more things more smoothly. This is why Apple is so dominant now; as a company that was always half software and half hardware, they were perfectly poised to handle the transition to the web era.

But Sony have notoriously struggled with software. Even now, their iTunes equivalent – Media Go – is clunky and inefficient. The PSN video store is limited to the PS3 and PSP. And Sony Ericsson have failed to create something truly compelling – with Android 2.2. out, even the once-impressive Xperia X10 feels stale now. While Sony CEO Howard Stringer is committed to change, it seems to be happening far too slowly.

So Sony has two options. Spend years and billions becoming a software-centric company, or team up with an established web player. Given Sony’s precarious financial situation, it’s the latter that makes more sense.

And with a partnership already established in InternetTV, it’s Google who are Sony’s best bet. The search giant is committed to openness, has some of the best programmers around, and are a way for Sony to jump ahead of their competition rather than, as they have for years now, simply play catch up. And let’s face it: some co-operation between Sony and Google could have some pretty incredible results.

So what might the partnership produce?

Sony + Google = iPad Killer?

With 2 million iPads sold in just 2 months, it seems pretty clear that Jobs was right: the touch-screen tablet is a new product category. So far, however, it seems that more than anything the iPad has actually killed tablet innovation rather than spurred it on.

The problem for all other manufacturers is that it’s so hard to match Apple on both hardware and software. But hope comes in the form of a rumor: what if Sony teamed up with Google to make a tablet?

The thing is, every glimpse we’ve had of an Android tablet so far has seemed okay, but not perfect. Similarly, while Sony still make killer hardware, their user interfaces are often lackluster. But who else but Sony could create a tablet device that would be even thinner and lighter than the iPad? And who else but Google has the know-how to implement a small, light, open and extensible OS for said tablet.

With a modified version of either Android or the forthcoming Chrome OS, the Sony-Google tablet could be slickly designed, have access to an app store, have great battery life and be more open than the iPad. Can you imagine a Sony a tablet with wide, open video format support? Or support for both Flash and HTML5? It’d be pretty killer, right?

By combining the bestĀ  of Sony’s hardware expertise and Google’s software magic, we may not have to wait years for a viable iPad competitor, but could instead see one arrive in 2011.

A Radical Change for the PSP2?

But it isn’t just tablets that may benefit from this hypothetical partnership. Sony’s gaming division might too.

After all, now that Sony are just giving games away for free, you can tell they are getting pretty desperate about the PSP. But my theory is that they’re trying to extend the life of the PSP because the PSP2 just isn’t ready yet. Why? Well, Sony must know that in order for the PSP2 to be compelling, it has to match the iPhone. Yes, the games will be a priority – but it will also have to have apps, a touchscreen, excellent media capabilities and web browsing. Otherwise, why buy it? This is obviously taking a long time.

But the best way Sony can ensure the creation of a truly compelling device is to work with the folks at Mountain View to create a customized Android-based solution. Sure, Sony has very legitimate security concerns; it has hit the PSP hard. But if they worked with Google to address those specifically, and at the same time allowed themselves access to Android Market, they’d have a viable competitor to the iPhone’s media functionality and array of apps.

Of course, using Android would also mean that Sony could release two versions of the PSP2 – one with a phone and one without – making it much more competitive than the current PSP, which is struggling to stay relevant. By basing the PSP2 on a custom version of Android, Sony could have the must-have all-in-one device the original PSP was supposed to be.

What Else Would a Sony-Google Partnership Bring?

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about a merger or anything so far out there. But in the face of so much competition and Sony’s software department seemingly unable to keep up, having these two companies team up on certain projects would be a boon for both. Sony would get Google’s know-how with software and Google would get their operating systems onto some of the best hardware out there.

And it’s not just these tablets or portable gaming that would benefit. Sony’s Reader line would be a perfect match for the forthcoming bookstore, Google Editions. All of Sony’s products could benefit from the cloud-based services of Google Apps.

Sure, maybe it’s a pie-in-the-sky idea. But when you take a step back and look at Sony’s position – maybe not. What do you think, Techi readers? What good might come of out a Google-Sony partnership?

By navneetalang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang

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