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HP and Sony battle for domination of digital entertainment

New battlefields, new enemies

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While opening one Sony box, I got a strange feeling of anticipation and excitement. This is the Holy Grail of Marketing which Sony has mastered. If you can make your customers feel this way when they’re just opening the box, then deliver on their expectations once they have the product out and are using it … well then, you’ve accomplished something very precious and rare. And Sony has.

H-P meanwhile, has a clear and discernible advantage in terms of its branding and customer loyalty to business users.

Now Sony has launched a plethora of beautifully designed new devices designed to make us “feel at home with VAIO” as Sony’s tagline puts it. From a series of new entertainment-oriented VAIO laptop lines to desktops, a first from the Japanese brand—and a home server product that consolidates all media in one place, to sizable new Sony plasma screens (some as big as 50 inches) and LCD’s for integrated use with all their products, Sony has put together an impressive multiple-product line where the compatibility will presumably be seamless.

And finally, the new VAIO Pocket is touted as the “iPod Killer” and it’s easy to see why. Apple should be afraid; very afraid indeed.

However, the new H-P level of design embedded in its new notebooks is a step forward. H-P has in some small ways borrowed a designing page from Sony and other consumer electronics companies. This is precisely what it must do to give Sony a run for its money in the consumer products sector where Sony reigns supreme.

H-P has a strong reputation for technological excellence. Their founders conceived and built advanced products like oscilloscopes. This deep-technology experience will serve them well in a head-to-head battle with the leading consumer electronics’ design company. But they must not forget their roots.

Launching a line of truly plug and play products, Sony has proven the possibility for the consumer to take a product, even an advanced electronic/computing product, right out of the box, plug in a few components and be off to the races. This has always been the oft-chased but little found ideal for companies like Sony and H-P.

Power consumption is still a serious problem with both lines. But all consumer electronics on the market badly need a quantum leap in battery life and to offer the consumer something over five hours per battery charge.

Sony has incorporated its new “VAIO Zone” into the desktop as an alternative media player to Microsoft’s omnipresent offering. For even the dominant Microsoft this is an ominous threat because Sony designs better products in the long run and theirs aren’t typically released with bugs included.

Both H-P and Sony laptops were frustratingly complicated in terms of connecting to the Internet and getting online. Plug and play? For Pete’s sake, this function is plug and pull hair out while getting an excruciating migraine. Trying to connect to my wireless LAN, usually a snap for any new devices I’ve added, was challenging and time consuming. These brands simply must make their products easier for the end-user.

Who Wins?

H-P maintains the upper hand in the enterprise computing arena with business consumers, but Sony wields an almost unbreakable hold on the consumer electronics and entertainment sectors. This will make this struggle very interesting indeed.

User mobility, a benefit Sony practically invented with the Walkman, will be central. H-P is no slouch in this area either, claiming inventor status of the iPaq PDA (through the swallowing of competitor Compaq).

A major Sony advantage is its increasing strength on the content side. Their ownership of film studios, record labels and online distribution channels means they might be able to take out the Apple iPod, competitive H-P product line and even Microsoft’s ubiquitous Window’s Media Player without getting their hands dirty. H-P doesn’t have this potential but instead sticks to its knitting. which can also represent an advantage at the end of the day. Sony has put together a powerful control over both distribution (the devices) and content (movies, TV, songs and games) which could allow them to be anti-competitive; so a great strength might also be a terrible weakness, if the anti-trust regulators get involved.

The convergence of devices, user applications and these two huge markets makes this competition particularly important. Like the classic clash between JVC’s VHS format and Sony’s certifiably-better Betamax format, the winner will go on to experience a full-nelson on the consumer’s mind, buying power and wallet.

Sony with its decades of consumer electronics experience and time to get their design right has an almost insurmountable head-start. Insurmountable that is, if H-P cannot transfer the long-time allegiance and brand loyalty of a huge customer base who has used its desktops at home and at work and travelled on business with their laptops all while printing their photos, correspondence, etc. on the market-leading H-P printers.

This will not be boring. ®

Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and had his own segment on SKY News commenting on high-tech and marketing issues. He has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business, The Financial Times, Marketing Magazine (UK), Forbes.com, The Moscow Times, Cisco Systems iQ Magazine, United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. Bill may be reached at: bill@relentlessmarketing.com

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