When Two Tribes Go To War

The consumer electronics industry can be relied on to give the public exactly what it wants - after it's tried everything else, of course. Time after time, global electronics giants come up with super-whizz-bang new products -- sporting 3D this, surround sound that -- only to be greeted with a deafening silence from punters. Vast marketing budgets get spent as major manufacturers unleash their technological tours-de-force on the world, often to be greeted by the sound of tumbleweed blowing around a deserted Wild West ghost town...

Luck doesn't come in to it -- Apple's iPod or Sony's PlayStation didn't succeed by some happy accident. The product has to be exactly what's demanded or desired, precisely when the public's ready to invest in it. If it isn't, there's precious little chance it will find its way under the Christmas tree in December. If there's one lesson to be learned in today's gadget world, it's that you can't fool all of the people even some of the time. The process of natural selection applies in the tech world too -- and manufacturers ignore this at the peril.

Take Sony for example. In my view, it is one of the greatest innovating consumer electronics companies of the modern age. It started in the sixties making cheap, high quality portable 'transistor radios' for the world; for the first time, you could hear the Beatles or the Stones in a street near you. It saw the need to minaturize ordinary common or garden technology and never looked back. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this credo was the Walkman -- a product that defined an entire genre (of small portable cassette players) and a whole generation (the nineteen eighties and nineties mobile music lovers). It's an oft-forgotten point that without the Walkman, the iPod could surely have never happened, as Apple's clever little computer portable simply carried on Sony's concept into the digital age.

Yet for all the greatness of Sony, the company has had some epic failures over the years, as it has constantly tried to second-guess the what the buying public are going to want a few years down the line. History (and eBay) is littered with its mistakes, some of which were gloriously well intentioned and unlucky, others of which were just plain dumb. Sony has found to its cost that 'just' being a vast consumer electronics giant with tremendous engineering, manufacturing and marketing clout doesn't guarantee you the world. Over and over again, the company has invented a format on the cutting edge of technology, then taken it to the world's buying public only to be rebuffed.

Remember Elcaset? Not many do. In the early nineteen seventies, Sony decided that what the world wanted was a small portable tape format that gave better sound than the Compact Cassettes we were all using. It certainly sounded superior, but so it should have done at three times the size and price. The tapes were about the size of a paperback book, so the world politely said, "I'll pass on that." All Sony's marketing might didn't help one jot, and Joe Public serenely walked on by.

Next there was Betamax. By the late nineteen seventies Sony had learned that size matters, so its new video cassette format was more compact than its VHS rival. This time though they didn't get the marketing right, causing punters to go for the cheaper and more readily available rival. Yes, Betamax gave better pictures and sound, and was slicker and nicer to use, but once again, masses of Japanese Yen went down the plughole as the great buying public sniffed and moved on...

Thankfully for Sony, its next venture was a rip-roaring success, but it did require teaming up with arch rival Philips to make it happen. Compact Disc was massive, with Sony providing the laser disc technology and Philips doing the audio processing trickery. It succeeded because it was easier to use, more durable and (unlike Betamax) easier to sell. Record shops loved CDs because they took up less shelf space than the LP records they were set to replace, making more money per square foot of retail space. The format was what the market wanted, at precisely the right time -- a rare combination!

Perhaps Sony should have quit while it was ahead. But just like Apple now, it had to keep feeding the market with new consumer gadgets, because he who stands still gets trampled by the forward march of technology. So the Japanese giant launched yet more music formats. In 1988 Digital Audio Tape (DAT) tried momentarily to replace analogue cassette, and failed almost before it was launched due to copyright and licensing squabbles. Sony's new MiniDisc (MD) format followed five years later and was decent enough, but the world simply wasn't ready to junk its cassette decks for the cute little recordable disc. A massive media splurge, with huge sums of Yen piled into promoting the dinky new digital disc, made not one dot of difference.

It wasn't until 2003 that the Next Big Thing arrived in audio, and it had Apple's name on it, not Sony's. The iPod, as we all know now, was just what the world had been waiting for. It played the burgeoning universal MP3 format, music was free from countless online download websites (albeit illegally), and it worked in a simple, slick way that no other digital music portable could. Amazingly, Sony's iPod rival at the time, the Memory Stick Walkman, did none of this -- the company had completely taken its eye off the ball. Sony thought people would buy it because "it's a Sony", but was wrong. Instead, the customer simply voted with his or her feet and bought the gadget that best did the job -- even if it was from a (then) relatively unknown company with a meagre marketing budget.

Apple is now the name on everyone's lips, and faces precisely the same problems as Sony did in the nineteen eighties. The company has dined out on the iPod for a decade, with its iPhone and iPad variants joining in its success. But where next for the Cupertino company? It too has to innovate new 'must have' gadgets that buyers never knew they couldn't live without until they tried them -- and it's a big ask. Once the David to Sony's Goliath, Apple is now the giant that needs to keep its feet on the ground, and not trip over the competition. Sony has studied at the school of hard knocks, and will surely rise again.