Smartphones, Oscars and Operators – Pierre Perron, MD, Sony Mobile, UK and Ireland

As Sony makes its new push into the mobile handset market—its first appearance as a solo brand in the space for ten years—it is positioning itself as a uniquely capable player across the content and device ecosystem. met with Pierre Perron, who heads the firm’s mobile business in the UK and Ireland, shortly after Mobile World Congress to hear his views on how Sony aims to re-establish itself in the heart of a consumer that has evolved enormously since Sony mobile phones were last available in the shops.

This year was Sony’s first appearance at MWC under its own brand for ten years. How was the show?

It was an interesting time at Barcelona. The message was really straightforward from our future president, Kazuo Kirai—it was about how important the smartphone business is for Sony in terms of building our four-screen strategy. We got a good sense of the need [from operators] to have an alternative offering to the leading brand in terms of entertainment today, which is Apple.

Up until this year everyone was questioning whether there would be any alternative—and now it seems that there are some credible alternatives. The content is there, and the standard connectivity—Sony has those assets. Howard Stringer used to say that Sony is the only brand in the world that can produce a smartphone and win an Oscar. The company footprint runs from producing content to creating devices that sit in the palm of the hand. So our challenge has been how to integrate that into one offering that could make sense for the consumer—and this is what we will provide.

Alongside this we have other activities, including PlayStation, which is an ecosystem in itself, and digital imaging. So the experience we gain in these areas is also feeding into our strategy.

The glue for it all is the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN), which is our content delivery platform. This enables the consumer to access music, video, ebooks, games and very soon we will offer a storage capacity service. Over the SEN you can have access to this with one single account and one single wallet. So it’s already there.

The only problem with the multi-screen strategy is that you’re dependent on other companies—operators—to get your smartphones to market. At a time when operators are looking to cut the number of handset suppliers, how can you get round this?

This is very important. Last year we heard a lot of people saying that operators are reducing their device portfolios. What I hear this year is that operators want to have alternative solutions that they can provide to the consumer in terms of ecosystems.

So we will not be ranged by an operator just because we have the cheapest or thinnest smartphone. Most of the revenue opportunity will come on whether we are able to provide to their customers, our consumers, an alternative to the likes of Apple. The discussion has moved from a smartphone-competitive landscape to an ecosystem.

So are you saying that operators can maintain a greater degree of relevance in that ecosystem with Sony than they can with Apple?

I think the operators believe that. They also appreciate the fact that the next battlefield in terms of revenue and marketing opportunity is the living room. Their plan, which is the right one, is to bring the mobile service into the living room in a sensible way for the consumer. All the analysis confirms that who owns the living room will win the war. This is why all our competitors are talking about TV.

So when we talk about this with our partners, we can talk about the 60 year marketing investment in living room entertainment that Sony has made—60 years investing in the living room and 30 years investing in mobile entertainment. It has a resonance to the consumer; the brand is becoming more and more important, with our biggest competitors marketing around brand and ecosystem and ease of use. This is one of our biggest assets. It has an attraction.

How does the mobile operator stay relevant if the battle is in the living room?

I guess the retail network is one thing that is important and I would say the potential of multiple tariffs on different devices that makes the offering simple. For them it’s also the stickiness of the consumer.

We are more than willing to engage with all the operators in discussions about how we can make sure we provide a relevant and compelling proposition for  the connected entertainment experience. We need to engage with these operators and partners in a way that creates a win-win proposition so that they stay in the value chain and we are more visible in their retail network.

But not all UK operators are carrying your new devices?

Vodafone has decided not to range our Xperia devices [in the UK]. You cannot force anybody to carry your devices. Operator support is very important to our story but consumer attraction is ultimately more important. At the end the final choice is made by the consumer.

How difficult will it be coming back to the market as Sony, given how competitive it has become?

We must appreciate the fact that we have been away from the consumer’s mind in the last ten years. So we are committed to come back and engage consumers from an emotional point of view. We will run massive consumer campaigns starting in the next couple of weeks. It’s meaningless to say that operators are key if the consumers are not asking for your products.

The idea is to convince the consuymer to stay with us because they like us in terms of the experience, not because they cannot go anywhere else. So our strategy is about openness, about standardised connectivity—and bringing the content that we have into the hardware division.

Later in the year it will be about personal content. 50 per cent of the entertainment experience today is about sharing personal content. We will be opening our cloud service, Play Memories, later this year.

What’s your OS strategy now? Are you still exclusively committed to Android for mobile devices—and how will you create a unified experience across multiple platforms, given your PCs are Windows-based?

The operating system we use shouldn’t be that important as long as we can create a common, unified experience—not a single one but a common one. Because it depends on the screen but unified, to access the content to share the images and videos, and to integrate with your social network. This is clearly the direction that all the teams have.

For smartphones, we have always said we are open to any other OS discussions We don’t want to become a single OS company but for the time being the reality is that Android is the only platform for smartphone activity that is flexible enough to enable us to build this unified user experience. But if another one is open and flexible enough and it comes to market we are more than happy to get into discussions.

Much is made of  ‘co-opetition’ today. How do you manage the fact that you’re competing with the likes of Google on services while partnering on the OS?

It doesn’t matter if consumers have both services. We appreciate that Google have a similar strategy and they are a strong partner with us as we aim to integrate the new capabilities of Android.

The competitive landscape is not just complicated, it has different faces. And it’s those faces that are changing. Yesterday we were competing with hardware manufacturers. Today we are competing with OS vendors, tomorrow we will be competing with our own customers; e-retailers, for example. We could be competing with the newspapers if we launch a particular content play. This is the reality of our business.

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