We reamed the Sony SmartWatch in a recent review. It was almost mean of us; it was definitely emotional. And while we stand by our opinion, another new Sony product perfectly illustrates why we got all pissed off: The gorgeous, awesome RX100.
When we know a company is capable of products like this, we—and most of the world world—expect greatness from that company all the time. If Sony could make every product as wonderful as its new camera, the company could once again be a gadget king.
Sony's problem is inconsistency. For every time the company makes our eyes drool with an amazing new prototype TV for the future, it releases an overpriced Bravia for uninspiring use today. For every brilliant Tablet S, we get a terrible Tablet P. And then, just weeks after the horror-tragedy of the SmartWatch, here comes the RX100—a spectacular camera, and probably one of the most important gadgets in years. Why? Unparalleled design sure doesn't hurt.
When you put the RX100 next to another, already fantastic gadget, you see how brilliant Sony can be. The Canon S100 is a terrific camera in its own right, but the RX100 absolutely smokes it across every single facet. Forget image quality. Look at each minuscule detail. The layouts of the cameras, from dials to buttons to grips and power buttons—are virtually identical. It's almost a standardized scheme. But each of those buttons, knobs, and rounded lines is unquestionably superior in Sony's iteration. The smoothness of the lens wheel. The sturdiness of the mode dial. The industrial handsomeness of its face, harkening back to an expensive stereo in miniature. Adrian nailed it in our review:
Its build quality is rock solid. Lines are squeaky clean. Buttons, knobs, and dials have much more satisfying clicks and spins. It looks and feels like a premium device in ways that the S100 could only dream of. OK, cool, so it's another small, expensive point-and-shoot. But then you turn it on.
And the software beneath is just as lovely as its black shell—fast, intuitive, and useful. Again, the complete opposite of the SmartWatch.
So how did one womb birth two antithetical twins? Sony doesn't help itself. Its products—a dizzying diversity of them—are shuttered apart, relegated to departmental "silos" that don't talk to one another. Sony's last CEO, Howard Stringer, knew how important it was to end the silo culture within Sony and add something the giant had lost over the decades: focus. The same focus that'd given Apple the reach to snatch the LED-encrusted crown off Sony's head.
With Apple it's easy to notice a common design language across almost every single product: from iPhones to iMacs. But almost every Sony build, by comparison, seems like it could've come from a separate company. And in a way, they sort of do, with TVs, speakers, phones, cameras, and the rest of the catalog all churned out by engineers with blinders on. There's not enough teamwork, no unity, and it manifests in the plastic and metal things Sony sells us. Stringer's successor, Kaz Hirai, doesn't seem to have fixed this—the corporate inertia of a company that big might just be too powerful for one man to overcome.
But it has to be overcome. A mega-manufacturer like Sony shouldn't be so uneven, so erratic. And it can't afford to be, because every toxic release like the SmartWatch hurts Sony more than an enormous victory like the RX100 helps.
Sony needs to put all of its smart people in one room. The brains that made the RX100 should butt heads with those who gave the SmartWatch a shot. Product departments should have open doors. Or no doors. Sony's design process needs to be consolidated, so that the same care given to the best thing is given to every thing.
The current way of doing business and making things isn't working anymore. This needs to change. Otherwise, Sony—a hardware deity—will be remembered more for its schizophrenic decline than its stellar spikes. And what a shame that'd be, from a company that hasn't just made some good stuff, but is a genuine cultural force. It's hackneyed to cite the Walkman, but I don't care. Sony made the gadgets that not only changed the way we lived our lives—entire albums you can carry with you!—but made us fall in love with technology. Sony stood for beauty, for making amazement something you can buy on a shelf, for transforming the stunning into the commonplace. It's messing up, yes—but only because it's not looking at and listening to itself.