Low End Theory

Sony is the New Sorny


By Brendan I. Koerner

Many moons ago, when Low End Theory was still a metaphorical pup, I wrote a column about the principle of value spread—that is, the phenomenon of companies that manufacture both cheapo and ultra-expensive electronic goods. One of the true champs of value spread was Sony, which peddles everything ranging from flat-screen TVs costing five figures to sub-$25 cassette recorders. It's a beast of a brand, no doubt, and one that I've been particularly loyal to in years past—why, right this very minute, I'm tapping away on a four-year-old Sony Vaio laptop that's survived two massive hard-drive failures in fine style.

But as Sony wares have become ever more visible in the sorts of shops that include the words "Bargain, "Discount," or "Crazy" in their names, I've noticed a troubling decline in the brand's low-end quality. In fact, I'd daresay if I had $30 to spend on a transistor radio or corded microphone, I'd forego Sony's offerings in favor a cheaper, more reliable option from the likes of jWIN. How did such an ignoble fate befall the onetime emperor of gadgets? Rudimentary philosophizing on the matter once you click the "More" button below. PLUS: Name that Chinatown PDA, make a treasured Low End Theory reader immeasurably happy to be alive.

Now, I understand that this whole column is predicated on the notion that Sony did indeed have a low-end golden age. I'd place that era in the mid-to-late 1990s, after the buzz of the Walkman had worn thin, but before the advent of digitized music. Oh, what a glorious time—I reveled in the hardiness of my affordable Sony tape recorder, which survived being heaved against a wall during a National Bohemian-fueled tantrum, and bobbed along the streets of Mount Pleasant to theme music provided by my (less affordable) Discman.

The Guangdongization of the electronics industry killed that era, mostly for the better. Knock-offs and barebones products began to flourish, forcing Sony to make a choice: stay in the low-end sector, or abandon us shorts arms, deep pockets types and focus solely on higher margin goods. Not sure what the debate was like 'round the conference table in Tokyo, but Sony went for the former strategy—perhaps they were actually making serious coin on low end, or perhaps they just want to be a friend to the working man.

Whatever the reason, Sony now had to compete with brands that were explicitly set up to minimize price, dealing with fly-by-night contract factories as it suited them. Sony knew it couldn't compete on price, so it chose a slightly different strategy; lag behind the Cobys of the world by around $5 per product, but stress that tried-and-true Sony quality. Sort of like the way Oreos cost a bit more than private label "sandwich cremes," but use packaging and commercials to make clear that they don't taste like sandpaper dipped in corn syrup.

This might've worked if Sony's low-end goods were demonstrably better than their competitors in the space. But they're not—Sony's designers have developed a strange fascination with bells-and-whistles, and forgotten that what matters most in discount stuff is durability. Today's Sony tape recorders may feature dials that control playback speed, for example, but they also break extraordinarily easy. The digital stuff is even worse—raise your hand if the LCD screen on your Sony product cracked or went dead within hours of the three-month warranty expiring. Y'all too? Yeah, I figured.

My hunch is that Sony was so far behind on price, and so bound to its traditional supply channels, that it's been forced to cut corners on materials and quality assurance, merely to remain a straggler in the low-end game. It's a game that a megasized conglomerate like Sony is ill-suited to play—its strengths are pushing out products that require significant R&D and promotion, like Blu-ray. But cutting the lard out of the manufacturing process is a whole different skill set, one that requires a degree of ruthlessness that a patrician enterprise like Sony probably can't muster.

Low End Theory

Sony, as many of y'all know, has been having some troubles as of late; the company is so diversified, its lagging sectors are dragging down its successful ventures. It's had the nerve to kill lackluster product lines in the past, as when the CLIÉ went bye-bye as the smartphone market emerged. Is it time for Sony to cast the same coldly rational eye on its sub-$30 gadgets biz? Maybe they could take whatever resources they allocate to making godawful analog tape machines, and redirect them to some of the more pressing issues facing the company. Super-high on my list: why on Earth did Sony's debut attempt at an iPod killer, the NW-1, force you to convert files into the proprietary ATRAC format? Anyone?

ZAURUS-LIKE: Deep down I'm a people person, and few things gladden my heart more than knowing I've assisted a fellow human being. But I'm also pretty lazy, especially when (as is the case at this very moment) I'm sitting on an Amtrak train, sleepy as all get out because a) I haven't had my morning coffee and b) I stayed up 'til 3 a.m. last night watching old episodes of The Wire on HBO on Demand.

So let me do a little Lazy Web thing here and toss out a reader's query for y'all to deal with. A delightfully monikered lad recently wrote in from San Francisco, where he spied a low-end electronic organizer in a Chinatown store. Sayeth out correspondent:

It looked a great deal like a Sharp Zaurus ZR-5800 (clamshell, with large, captioned icons on both sides of the touch screen, as well as looking flimsy and cheap), but with a color screen. I was stupid and didn't snap a shot, scribe model number or even note the manufacturer...Package art was in Chinese/Japanese, but the back had English features list and indicated an English language option.

If you want to help a pal of a pal out, and your up on Chinatown PDAs, drop me a line and I'll pass along your info. Trust me, you'll totally get into heaven if you do a Low End Theory reader a solid.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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