Sony’s new products doomed to mediocrity (so say MSNBC)

By Wilson Rothman (at gadgetbox at MSNBC)

Sony just revealed a flank of products intended to help the beleaguered brand retake the personal electronics world. The trouble is, it all adds up to a pretty weak play. Let’s take it bit by bit:

Tablets: As MSNBC Suzanne Choney reported, the awaited Sony Tablet S and weirdly foldable Tablet P were unveiled Wednesday. Many immediately noted that the S has specs and pricing similar to Apple’s hit iPad. The tablets run the Android Honeycomb tablet operating system, meaning that while they won’t suffer the isolation of HP’s TouchPad or RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook, they must contend with the throng of competitors — some of whom are already engaging in a price war.

Sony Tablet S

Some say Sony was late to the party on Android tablets; I don’t think that’s the case. Right at this moment, it’s actually a terrible time for anybody except Apple (and perhaps Amazon) to enter the tablet market.

Sony sent pre-production units of the Tablet S to reviewers. Our friends at Laptop seemed dismayed by the fact that the tablet “isn’t finished.” They mentioned that there’s still a lot to learn about the books, music and movie media service, not to mention the PlayStation-branded gaming, all of which have yet to be launched. Gizmodo’s verdict was equally reluctant — they criticized the iPad-level pricing, saying “the build quality doesn’t seem up to snuff” and the speed of software running on it was “a mixed bag.”

Whoever decided early reviews were a good idea seems not to have paid much attention to the tablet business lately. These may very well end up in the $99 discount bin — but only if they’re lucky.

Sony Ericsson

Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S

Smartphones: This smartphone business has been tricky for joint venture Sony Ericsson, especially as it balances its own Xperia flavor with the larger Android movement. The trick is to not stick out so bad people complain, but to not get lost in the shuffle either. The Sony Ericsson Arc S is a powerful phone that bucks the trend with a 1.4 GHz single core processor (most phones are going with 1 GHz and 1.2 GHz dual-core processors). Its got a healthy 4.2-inch screen and an 8-megapixel camera — all top specs. It even has the Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited cloud media services that Sony will be using to try to compete with Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and the rest of those big dogs.

But where’s the PlayStation? Seriously, Sony, if you don’t understand that PlayStation is your best bet at differentiation, something’s wrong. Every Sony Ericsson smartphone from now on should have a PlayStation hub, and certainly any smartphone with a crazy hot processor. How is that not obvious?

Sony Reader Wi-Fi

E-readers: For the company that basically created the category of e-ink e-book reader, Sony has really lacked a competitive edge. With the newly announced Reader Wi-Fi, it’s got something that hits the sweet spot of consumer demand — 6-inch e-ink touchscreen, Wi-Fi-only networking.

Still, it is coming in with a price tag that’s $10 higher than the bestselling Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook. There is a wee bit of hope for Sony, though: It has partnered with J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore e-book service, and will let Reader buyers download the first installment of the Harry Potter series for free “when it becomes available.” At least you know where that extra $10 goes.

Portable media: Just after Sony announced not one but three Walkman music and video players, they teased a fourth — shown here on CNET. It runs Android, can support all kinds of Android apps, and puts the current lineup to shame. Let me say that again: A month after Sony announces its not-yet-shipped portable media players, it shows off their replacement, which is nicer (but still not as nice as an iPod Touch).

Sony is joining the cloud craze by offering its Music Unlimited service for its devices, and I applaud Sony for offering a free half-year of the service to Walkman buyers — assuming any happen along.

Sony HMZ-T1 video goggles

3-D: A final item from Sony’s lineup absolutely leaps out at you: The HMZ-T1 goggles, with tiny high-definition OLED screens for each eye that let you see a massive wall of 3-D TV, even if you’re locked in a coffin. Watching the video on Sony’s press site, I want nothing more than to have this glorious, innovative object. Hands-on reviews have been enthusiastic to say the least, and Gizmodo’s Mat Honan suggests that the goggle format might actually help the many people (like me) who have a hard time enjoying 3-D on screens.

But then I have to shake myself out of my daze. This is a distraction — an $800, probably Japan-only one at that — from the reality that Sony is losing in every battle it’s currently engaged in. It’s behind on TV sales, it has no phone or PC strategy to speak of, it’s behind Apple, Amazon and pretty much everybody else in media distribution, and has yet to make amends for the personal security nightmare it dragged its devoted gamers through this year.

Maybe I’m in a pessimistic mood today, so let’s ask, what would I have liked to have seen in the Sony strategy? For starters, a real media and gaming powerplay: Every new product getting PlayStation certification, and a full line-up of games and services. I’d like to see an entire ecosystem where a single account sets you up with books, movies, music and gaming, with all devices cooperating to the best of their ability.

The hardware is no longer the point, and to hold back on the software and services is bad. But when it comes to the hardware, Sony can do a little bit of housekeeping.

I would like less emphasis on multiple options, like the three MP3 players, and the nonsensically foldy tablet, and more unification of product lines (yes, fanboys and haters alike, a la Apple).

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