Do you remember Sony? Not the guys who let your PSN account get hacked, or the ones who loved their proprietary formats more than their customers. The Sony you grew up with, who made the gear you couldn't live without. I hope you do. Because it looks like they might just be back.
Admittedly, it's a big "might." All we've got to go on right now are product shots, a brief hands on or two. Potential. But there's a lot of it, more than we've seen in years, and for the first time we can remember we've got that tingling feeling in our necks, that anticipation, that eagerness: what's Sony going to do next?
The Products Matter Again
In the last several weeks, here's what we've seen from Sony: the lightest 13-inch full-voltage laptop. The first tablets—two of them!—that don't look and feel like sad little iPad clones. A headphone MP3 player that meshes form and function in that wonderfully seamless way that so much gear doesn't bother to anymore. PlayStation Vita, a handheld gaming system that's as powerful as a home console. A (rumored) gorgeous NEX-7 rangefinder camera that doesn't bone you on price. Did you know that Sony's got one of the best cloud music offerings out there, and that it's iTunes-compatible and months ahead of iCloud? That they're finally shaking up their sad Sony Reader line-up, that they're cranking out speakers you'd actually want to show off?
It's not entirely clear what's behind this quasi-renaissance; Sony's suffered through some rough years, financially, troubles compounded by this spring's terrible earthquake. The hacking of the PlayStation Network in April was one of the worst breaches of online trust in recent memory. But despite all this, Sony's come out with line-up that makes us salivate just a little. And they're doing it the right way.
The Great Wide Open
So much of Sony's dark age began with the misconception that they needed complete control. Proprietary formats and devices, hoarding its content like a dragon would gold, a deluded aversion to Android. Sony made the same mistake we all do: they thought they were special. And they charged outrageously tone-deaf amounts for people to gain access to Fort Sony. Just because cubic zirconia thinks it's a diamond doesn't mean customers will pay five carat prices.
But look at what's happened lately. The S1 and S2 tablets that Sony paraded earlier this week are unabashedly Android, instead of some weird Sony platform that only plays nice with Bravias. But they're still distinctly new and different and refreshing and kind of wonderful, when you think about it, for sheer ingenuity of design. It's hardware that actively tries to solve usability issues that dozens of cookie-cutters haven't bothered to address, and does it without sacrificing any interoperability. That Vaio Z? It uses Thunderbolt, for goodness sake.
You want content? Sony finally opened up the vault, gifting the highly usable Crackle app—a bonanza of movies and TV shows Sony owns the rights to—to iOS and Android alike. And it's free.
Even when Sony's failures have come with the best intentions. Instead of maintaining Bravia as the world's most expensive internet-enabled pillow fort—gawd, remember the $300 Internet Video Link that only worked with Bravia TVs and was kind of horrible in theory and execution?—Sony opted to be the highest-profile Google TV hardware partner. It's not Sony's fault that Google TV's been a bust so far. And if and when it gets its act together, Sony's going to be at the vanguard of a killer living room offering.
It's not a perfect picture—Sony's Qriocity media storefront is the answer to a question people stopped asking a long time ago, Bravia's not melting hearts and eyeballs like it used to—but it's a start. An indication that Sony at least acknowledges how the ecosystem has changed since they were the freshest MC on the block.
Don't Screw It Up, Please and Thank You
Here's the catch: most of these products aren't even on the market yet. We don't even know what those Sony Readers look like; they may just be a slightly faster rehash of the same reflective awfulness. And as much as those tablets are a relief in their pure newness, they still might very well suck. Or more likely: be insanely, irrationally expensive.
Because that's always been Sony's biggest Achilles heel. The company spent so many years being able to command top dollar that they don't understand why Apple can get away with premiums that Sony can't. And back then, yes, their products were genuinely better. But not any more, not for a while. As sleek and wonderful as the new Vaio Z looks, I don't know that it's a $2,000 rig. As practical as those headphones look, I don't think I'm ready to pay $60 for a 2GB mp3 player.
But maybe that's just niggling. It's the products that made us fall in love with Sony when we were young. And it's the products that will win us back. Let's get those right first. The rest will fall into place.