Linking a device to a gadget that’s wired to a gizmo
The average American household now owns some 25 consumer electronics products – televisions and stereos and high-tech gimcracks of every imaginable flavor. That statistic brings that industry’s annual convention in Las Vegas last week into stark relief. Some 130,000 people moved around a noisy, pulsing display space, with thousands of products covering a land mass that seemed roughly equivalent to Norway’s.
If a company wants its products to be among that 25, it is going to have to hustle.
And, face it, even getting an order from the retailers’ buyers trawling the floor is far from a guarantee of success in stores. Notably absent from the party, as always, is the iPod purveyor Apple Computer. It holds its exclusive annual gathering for the faithful, Macworld, beginning Monday in San Francisco.
Which is why it was striking that of the five keynote speeches at the Las Vegas conference – the ones where visionary chief executives tell you where the industry is headed – only one was delivered by an executive who could argue that his company’s main business is good old consumer gizmos. That was Sir Howard Stringer of Sony, and more on him in a moment.
Bill Gates of Microsoft, Paul Otelini of Intel, Terry Semel of Yahoo and Larry Page of Google rounded out the list, underscoring that a gadget is only as good as what you can do with it. And all five of these titans are pursuing a singular goal of media domination: to be all things to all people, in a world where the people have all the control over how they communicate and consume media.
That battleground for things like who makes the biggest flat-screen TV with the highest-definition picture was, of course, in full force at the show. But it is now only one of two battlegrounds. The other – call it branded ubiquity – is about who controls the interaction between the consumer and that gadget and, more and more, all the other gadgets in the house as they become interconnected.
Increasingly, multiple gizmos live in a single box. Just as iPods can show videos and photographs, new generations of mobile telephones can store hundreds of songs but also take a heck of a photo or get access to a video and Web content. And there are, of course, Microsoft’s Windows Media Centers and other “digital lifestyle” devices that will be powered by its software, or Intel’s new Viiv technology platform.
Now there are also nascent efforts by Google and Yahoo to extend their pole positions as gatekeepers to the Internet onto any kind of screen – mobile phones and televisions in particular – where they want to be for video what they are already for text, images and audio.
Victory on this branded-ubiquity battlefield can be far more subtle than having the year’s top-selling cellphone. For example, one of last week’s endless announcements concerned a deal between Panasonic and Comcast for a new set-top box that will be included by Panasonic with purchases of its new line of TV’s by Comcast customers. The box will come with Comcast’s on-screen programming guide already built in and ready to go. The big difference between this and past cable guides, Comcast’s chief executive, Brian Roberts, explained to me, is that the Comcast-Panasonic viewer will be able to switch to any device or service hooked up to the TV through the Comcast guide – even things like DVD players or access to the Internet that may have nothing to do with Comcast.
The point is that after decades of push-and-pull between consumer electronics makers and distributors like cable companies, progress is being made around the notion that giving consumers a smooth way to navigate their media and reduce the number of remote controls and set-top boxes might help sell more TV’s and cable service. “Finally, there is détente,” Mr. Roberts said.
When it came time to snap some photos beside the mesmerizing 103-inch plasma screen that Panasonic was introducing, Mr. Roberts hopped up on stage and made sure that the images included the most breathtaking one he knows: Comcast’s interactive guide.
AMID the growing drumbeat of digital upheaval, Sir Howard Stringer had what was really his coming-out party after being put in charge last March of turning around a slumping Sony. In a presentation that included some of the razzle-dazzle he honed in his days running the CBS television network, Sir Howard had some stars (the actor Tom Hanks, the “Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown) onstage with him, along with the latest products he hopes will be Sony’s stars (Bravia flat-screen TV’s, PlayStation Portables, Blu-Ray DVD players).
But most notable was Sir Howard’s confident effort to show that Sony’s vast product line, as well as its media assets, including Sony Pictures and the Sony/BMG music joint venture, have a unifying logic.
To that end, not only has Sir Howard appointed the company’s first chief marketing officer, but last month he quietly poached a senior executive from Apple Computer, Tim Schaaff, to be Sony’s first companywide software chief. This week in Hawaii, Sir Howard is gathering the company’s 120 top software engineers to talk about ways to coordinate efforts among the variety of media players the company has, including the PSP, a new Sony Reader for electronic books, and the next iteration of the Walkman due out later this year – its latest attempt to take back some of the thunder the iPod has stolen.
Mr. Stringer argued that Sony’s content assets uniquely position it to drive new digital products and content, but he has also learned that the pursuit of branded ubiquity can be a double-edged sword. When Sony-BMG had to recall 5.7 million CD’s loaded with a flawed anti-piracy technology, Mr. Stringer said he was worried that other divisions would suffer. “We took quite a beating,” he said, adding that the whole point of the effort was to protect artists’ rights, not to limit consumers’. “We’ll just have to tread very, very carefully,” he said. “We have to walk the line at Sony between the needs of technology and the consumer, and the rights of the artist, which we feel very strongly about.”
Sony was right to move swiftly to limit potential harm from the episode: if there was one thing abundantly clear amid all the techno-wizardry of the consumer electronics show, it is that the way people choose to organize and tap into their media is becoming as important as – and will have a bearing on – the machines they buy.