Sony's Phil Molyneux On How to Weird Your Way Back to Greatness

Sony is a consumer electronics beast with a lot of clout, but not necessarily a great product roster to back up its legendary status. Today, it's hardly the company that put a Walkman in every backpack and a color TV in every living room.

That's more or less what I was thinking about when I walked into a conference room with Sony Electronics President and COO Phil Molyneux, who was sitting in a fancy hotel conference room surrounded by some of the best—and worst—Sony products the company makes right now.

On one hand, at the center of the table were the Sony A7 and A7r, two full-frame mirrorless cameras that are the first of their kind, so good that they're threatening to make the DSLR obsolete. These two badass shooters follow Sony's awesome RX100, probably the best pocket point-and-shoot camera ever made.

Meanwhile, strapped to Molyneux's wrist was the second iteration of Sony's SmartWatch failure, its rubber and plastic a poor match for his slickly tailored suit.

For a few years now, Sony has in the midst of a comeback. Despite missteps like the SmarWatch, other products have been not just innovative, but relevant and beautifully designed. Products like the full frame mirrorless cameras are encouraging, and indeed, even the company's failures aren't always disheartening. The Xperia Tablet P was a terrible product, but at least it was different; Sony has consistently been one of the only companies to experiment with tablet form factor outside the mainstream.

Weirdness is a risk, but it's one that can lead to greatness. It's certainly smarter than playing it safe on unsteady ground. The converse, of course, is that every time we think Sony's back, it's just a few fumbles away from screwing it up again. A lot of interesting sputters don't amount to a good product.

Here's what Molyneux had to say about Sony's recent shortcomings, and why we should bet on big things from the company in the future.

Gizmodo: I've mentioned this to you before, that I like to see products like the [A7, A7r, and RX10] that are firsts. It's what we like to see, because it means that companies are taking chances and trying to find markets. Sony moved a lot of internal infrastructure over towards the digital imaging business last year. Are you looking for markets, or are these markets that you think are there?

Phil Molyneux: Fundamentally, you're asking the question, "why are we doing this?"

Giz: Well why are you trying all of these new ideas? That sounds silly when I put it like that. But you're trying things that most people would not.

PM: Because we're innovators. We're creators. For as long as you look back in Sony, we've always been pushing the boundaries and creating new categories and experiences for consumers. Three years ago, someone wrote an article saying we could no longer innovate, and I dispute that greatly. If you look back at our track record, whether it's tape decks or the Walkman or the Playstation or color TVs or, more up to date, what we've done with the 4K ultra HD TV—we created that market, and everybody else now is jumping in.

What we've done on the digital imaging side is a natural extension of our work. We have the complete value chain in this space. We develop an R&D and we manufacture the image sensors. We have the processing technology, we have the optical management technology, and that work goes back 30 years, or even before, because we had the CCD chip technology and were one of only a few companies that had that.

But if you look at today and where we're putting our focus: we have handsets now, this is the new [Xperia] Z1. We put the best of Sony in here: it's got our Bravia engine technology in here to drive the screen, so the screen quality is very high and very good. And then it's got a 20 MP camera in here.

Giz: Well, that's interesting because smartphones account for a large portion of the revenue that Sony's making right now, and it's still not really known for that. How does all of this push figure into making it seem like an innovator in that area?

PM: So I think we still have a small market share in total. We've stated publicly that we want to be number 3 in the not-too-distant future, and I think that's a good aspiration, and one that we could drive forward with. And we're making a name for ourselves. The [Xperia] Z phone that was announced at CES—I was on the stage and held up the Z—has done very well for us, and continues to sell very well. The Z1 that was announced at IFA: everyone has been really looking forward to it, and it's a very exciting product. So I think we can drive using our heritage, knowledge in images and processing technology and of course design, and breaking the envelope (this is dustproof, waterproof, etc) and push this forward.

But if we look at what we're doing with the cameras, to come back to your original point: obviously, putting the best of Sony technology in terms of the images in our handsets, has a detrimental effect on the market for low-end cameras. And we're all seeing that decline. It's no mystery. Everyone knows that the low-end is declining because of smartphones, and we accept that and are actually pushing it because we have our handsets.

But more recently, we've come out with the RX range of products. RX100 hit the market to much acclaim, and kind of gave us a jolt because the demand we saw for that product was far above what we expected. So we created that new area and that demand.

Giz: What do you think was the key observation there? What market did you find there that you didn't think was there before?

PM: I think we put a huge amount of functionality and capability into a small footprint product, and that didn't exist before the RX100 to the extent of what the RX100 can deliver. We followed it up with the RX100 M2 and took it a stage further, and of course the RX1, which for most people defies the laws of physics in what that camera could do. So I think we created a whole new domain and a whole new interest level in the capability of those products and the size of the format. Drop it in your bag or drop it in your pocket, but still have near-DSLR capability.

Giz: I've been meaning to ask you a broader question: what is the importance of being first to market with these products? Let's take the full-frame mirrorless cameras, the 4K television, the smartwatch, the ereader, any of the products which Sony has been first to market in the last couple of years.

PM: I think the more important point for us is: are we fulfilling a need for the consumer? So looking at the customer and their painpoints, and how do we solve those pain points, and how do we deliver a different experience. If you take the ereader, we were first to market. And not a lot of people remember that, so I really thank you for remembering. But we were first to market, and the simple point there was books are heavy and clunky. But with an ereader you've got one small, slim device and you connect it up into the cloud and you bring as many books down as you like. What a beautiful solution. So that's one painpoint that we resolved.

When you look at the 4K, UltraHD TVs we brought first to market—First 84-inch and now 65-inch and 55-inch—that's about new, beautiful experiences that we can bring to consumers. The story starts a long time ago, when we started to produce theatrical projection equipment for cinemas around the world that had 4k projection capability. That goes back to 2005. That was the theater experience that we wanted to deliver out to consumers without partners, to allow them to have that experience, and that's what Sony is about: doing things differently, bringing different experiences, solving people's paying points, and pushing the envelope of innovation. That's what we do.

Giz: And you pointed out that most people don't remember that you were first to market with the ereader because it was subsequently replaced on the market, for the most part, with a much more popular product. Maybe it goes back to the color TVs or the Walkman, these very famous triumphs that were firsts. But now, are these products being rushed out before they're ready or is there something to gaining market share because you get them out first?

PM: I think it's not a question of rushing out. We're always very careful about our quality, and we make sure to satisfy our customers in terms of the longevity of the product. But you can't be right every time, when you're innovating. We were first out with the tape decks, if you remember, Betamax…

Giz: I mean, I don't remember Betamax, I was barely alive…

I take that back. But if you read about it, Betamax was a better solution, better picture quality, better recording capability. However, VHS won that war. And that happens, but we were first out. To circle back to your question, does it matter about being first? I think yes. It shows you're an innovator as a company, and that you're breaking boundaries. But what's more important is that you bring something that consumers desire and use and enjoy.

Giz: And ultimately, the only way you can find out if somebody enjoys something is to put it out?

PM: You put the product out, and you have to wait and see how the sales are, and what the competitors do, and feedback from the consumers, and refine if necessary.

Giz:I didn't ask you about smartwatches. Where do you see these going? Do you see it ultimately as an accessory for an Xperia phone?

PM: Well it's an Android open device, so for any Android this will work. But where do I see it going? It's the start of the beginning, or the beginning of the start, whichever way you want to look at it.

Giz: What do they need to do better overall? I think you can agree that Sony and everyone, no one has gotten it right. I don't think anyone's going to get it right for a few years.

PM: I think for me, as an old geezer, I need a bigger screen with bigger writing. But there's lots more to come of this. It's a very exciting era.

Image via AP