To understand Sony, understand its founders, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita. Even though both are now gone, their executive dynasty and its haphazard, emotional governance established the model for the Sony of today—even as it holds Sony back.
Sony's early years are thick with stories of near disaster tempered by last-ditch recovery. After the Second World War, Japan was rebuilding its infrastructure. Electricity, no longer needed for military factories, was in surplus, and Ibuka and Morita wasted no time in putting together an electric rice cooker and an electric blanket for sale to the Japanese market.
They were horrible.
Despite a clever design, the rice cooker—a wooden bucket with electrodes at the bottom which would turn off when water steamed away, breaking the circuit—mostly under- or overcooked the rice. The electric blanket scorched blankets and futons, and there was fear it would eventually set a house on fire.
Ibuka was a tinkerer of the first order, so skilled at inventing that he won the Gold Prize at the 1933 Paris World's Fair for his patented "dancing neon". Morita was the scion of a prosperous family who chose a career of science instead of running the Morita sake business, breaking a chain of first-born leadership that stretched back fourteen generations.
They met working for the military, but wasted no time in forming Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo—Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company, Ltd., which would eventually become Sony—as soon as the war was over.
Ibuka, in his founding prospectus, made it clear that above all else, Sony would exist as a welcoming workplace for the eternally misunderstood engineer: "The first and primary motive for setting up this company was to create a stable work environment where engineers who had a deep and profound appreciation for technology could realize their societal mission and work to their heart's content."
Engineers have always been stars at Sony—more so, perhaps, than their creations.
For decades—perhaps even up until this day, depending on who you ask—the key decisions of the company were typically driven by Ibuka, Morita, or one of the relatively small cabal of executives that led the company. This is typical in a Japanese company, where even the board of directors is often comprised mostly of cronies and yes-men, unlike in Western corporations where (in theory) a board of outsiders represent the needs of the public shareholders.
From its very start, Sony has been a wonderworks of invention, with engineers given ample leeway to work on their own projects. Their early inventions were often built on the ideas of other companies, improvements rather than wholly new ideas.
German companies had invented tape recorders in the 1930s, but both the machines and the magnetic tape used for recording was expensive. Sony developed a paper tape that was affordable but with a shabbier sound quality, literally brushing on the shellac by hand onto paper tape with a brush made from badger hair.
When Bell Laboratories invented the transistor, Sony sent an employee to the United States for three months to learn how to manufacturer them. When test runs yielded only five functional transistors out of every one hundred made, Ibuka ordered the company to move ahead with production. He held in his mind a vision of a pocket-sized transistor radio, and although it took a couple of years for everything to click, the TR-55 Transistor Radio was a very profitable product for young Sony.
Consider Ibuka's biggest success: the development of the Trinitron picture tube, a couple hundred million of which Sony sold over the years. When the project began, Sony had licensed another tube technology, Chromatron, which had such poor production yields that it cost Sony nearly twice as much to produce than the price for which they were actually sold. Chromatron nearly bankrupted the company.
Ibuka himself led the engineering team that created the aperture grill that made Trinitron tubes colorful and clear. It took nearly two years for the first Trinitron tubes to roll off the assembly line. Years later, Ibuka considered it the high point of his career at Sony.
But if Ibuka had failed—and there were many failures before his team made the breakthrough—Sony probably wouldn't be around today. It was a legendary success—a legend that now allows Sony to rush headlong into engineering-led disasters.
Morita was less an impassioned engineer and more a dabbler, although make no mistake: Morita loved his gadgetry. It's just that he also loved business, good food, the arts. Like his successor, Norio Ohga, Morita was concerned as much with the media that would play on Sony products as he was with the gadgets themselves.
It was this thinking that lead Sony into the content space, having first made considerable profits by selling recording media like audio or video tape alongside its tape recorders, as well as the extremely profitable acquisition of Columbia Records.
Eventually, having made a fortune selling both CD players and manufacturing a large percentage of compact discs, Sony made a play for a Hollywood Studio. Although Sony had looked at most of the major studios, it happened that Columbia Pictures had the right combination of a potentially profitable film archive, a vast television library, and promising upcoming film projects.
The problem? Sony had no idea how to negotiate the deal properly, led on by typical Los Angeles entertainment tricksters, and soon had decided the only practical choice was to abandon its hopes of acquiring Columbia.
Until Morita said one evening over tea, "It's really too bad. I've always dreamed of owning a Hollywood studio."
And that was that.
Sony ended up paying an outrageous premium to acquire Columbia, only to write down billions of debt just a few years later. The same sally-forth qualities that had served Sony's founders so well at the beginning of their careers were still in play thirty years later, only now they were in control of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of employees.
There are countless examples of Ibuka and Morita's successors following in their footsteps, taking up the mantle of the brash engineer, forging ahead despite warnings of overambition or even unprofitable results, all in pursuit of a now-mythical Better Way. It's hard to blame them. Sony's founders brought fantastic success through their ideas and their tenacity, creating a corporate juggernaut big enough and diversified to withstand failures that would be catastrophic to smaller organizations.
Gadgets are not simply single-purpose electronic tools these days. They are platforms for software, for interaction, for media consumption.
I can't help but wonder if Ibuka and Morita would look at the Sony of today and see any similarity to the company they founded, a place where engineers can work in peace to create the future, or if they would realize that sometimes the dreams of engineers are best when united towards a unifying vision—a vision that must adapt to the landscape of its time.
For this piece and others, I am indebted to the authoritative work of John Nathan and his book, "Sony: The Private Life", as well as Sony's own history page which, perhaps tellingly, only goes up to 1995.
The complete "We Miss Sony" series
• Video: Describe Sony In A Word
• How Sony Lost Its Way
• Sony's Engineer Brothers
• Infographic: Sony's Overwhelming Gadget Line-Up
• The Sony Timeline: Birth, Rise, and Decadence
• Let's Make.Believe Sony's Ads Make Sense
• The Return of Sony