Hirai Ascendant

Has PlayStation boss Kaz Hirai just become the captain of a sinking ship?

It's official at last - after being publicly groomed as Sir Howard Stringer's replacement for the past couple of years, PlayStation boss Kaz Hirai has been confirmed as the new president and CEO of Sony. On April 1st, Stringer will step aside (becoming chairman of the company's board of directors, a separate and more hands-off role from company chairman at Sony) and Hirai's reign will begin.

In doing so, Hirai could be seen as completing the plan which PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi was never able to accomplish. Kutaragi was widely tipped as a future Sony boss after the extraordinary success of the PlayStation and PS2, and various executive moves between 1997 and 2003 seemed to be aimed at installing him in the role. The botched launch of PS3 sank Kutaragi's ambitions, though - so it's Hirai, instead, who fulfills the dream of a PlayStation boss taking over the entire company.

Hirai has a track record of successfully launching platforms, titles and services - there aren't a whole lot of people in Sony who have a track record of doing anything at all successfully in the past decade

We've become so used to the idea of Hirai as the natural successor to Stringer that it's easy to be blasé and underestimate just how important this move is. Sony, for all its recent difficulty in turning a profit and the challenges it faces in many markets, is an absolute giant of a company - one for whom the videogames market started out as little more than a hobby. Hirai's appointment isn't just a testament to his own abilities as an executive - it's a recognition that the confluence of hardware, software and network services in modern consumer electronics has made videogames into the front line of a war between competing visions of the future of entertainment and communications.

In Hirai, Sony has a boss who doesn't just pay lip-service to the strides made by PlayStation and by services like PlayStation Network - it finally has someone who actually understands that market, knows where and why Sony has succeeded and failed, and hopefully, even has a plan to replicate those successes and avoid those failures in future. He's someone who has a track record of successfully launching hardware platforms, software titles and network services - and that's very important, because bluntly, there aren't a whole lot of people in the rest of Sony who have a track record of doing anything at all successfully in the past decade or so.

In fact, when you start looking at the rest of Sony's operations, you start to realise just how important it is to let someone from the PlayStation side of the business run the show. The best thing that can be said for any of the executives in Sony's other divisions is that they have shown great competence in managing decline.

It's not entirely their fault, of course, that South Korea can undercut the prices of TVs made in Japan, or that Apple upended first the portable music market and then the mobile phone business - but in Sony's responses to those crises, there has been nary a glimmer of innovation or flair. In the face of the destruction of entire business sectors, Sony has bowed its head in acceptance, rather than attacking its rivals aggressively and fighting a battle over every sliver of market share.

Compare that attitude to the way SCEI approached the tough times it's been through in the past five years. Lumbered by Kutaragi's white elephant, a console that's expensive to build and largely unloved by software developers, hemmed in by an aggressive Microsoft on one side and an endlessly innovative Nintendo on the other, Sony's performance may not have been flawless, but it's been spirited. Five years after launch, Sony has salvaged this console generation; it won't finish on top, but neither will it experience a drubbing at the hands of its rivals, as seemed inevitable in the past. It cut prices early, redesigned the casing early, pumped money and attention into key first-party titles and committed heavily to PSN as a retail platform. None of these things were cheap, easy decisions, but they were the right ones.

Hirai has been a part of that process all along - a process that might well be a roadmap for how Sony is turned around. It's a process that has brought together all the strings that the company will require in its bow - hardware, software, services - and that's not an easy cultural shift for a firm that was founded by engineers and completely dominated by them until Stringer's appointment.

Of course, the question might fairly be asked, what can Hirai expect to achieve that Stringer could not? For all that Stringer was trumpeted as a reformer, Hirai inherits a company which this week is even deeper in the red than ever before. Plenty in the technology industry see Sony as a ship that's deeply holed under the waterline; it doesn't matter which captain stands on the bridge trying to turn the wheel, this boat is going down.

Hirai must be incredibly aggressive. It's likely that he will look to Apple as a model - ironically, in the same way that the young Steve Jobs looked admiringly to the then-dominant Sony as the model for his upstart computer company.

That pessimistic view may be accurate in the long run, but it underestimates the barriers Stringer has faced in his time in charge. For a start, there's no question but that it's difficult for a British-born executive to walk into the top job at a Japanese company and effect sweeping changes. Without wishing to compare Sony's situation to that of the crisis-stricken Olympus, the utterly disgraceful treatment of Olympus' whistle-blowing former CEO Michael Woodford in recent months is a clear illustration of just how badly wrong things can go for a foreign CEO in a Japanese company.

Stringer deserves credit for successfully navigating around any obstacles which would have brought such conflict out of the boardroom and into the public eye, but I suspect that a great deal of his time as Sony boss was probably spent butting heads with entrenched attitudes. Hirai's management style is reportedly quite Western in its character, but the simple fact of being born and educated in Japan is likely to smooth the path for him.

Besides that, however, there's the simple fact that Hirai actually knows the PlayStation business. Stringer was effusive in his praise for PlayStation, but clearly viewed the whole thing as a black box - questioned about specifics of what was happening with PlayStation, he would suggest that you spoke to Hirai or one of the other senior SCE execs. He could rarely name even the most major first-party franchises on PlayStation, in sharp contrast with his engagement with the firm's music and movie businesses, where he would speak fluently about major releases and franchises.

Given this, what will Hirai do now that the reins of Sony are in his hands? If he wants to actually turn the company around, whatever he does must be incredibly aggressive. It's likely that he will look to Apple as a model - ironically, in the same way that the young Steve Jobs looked admiringly to the then-dominant Sony as the model for his upstart computer company.

At Apple, Jobs created what was called a "halo effect" around the iPod, using the breakthrough success of the music player to boost sales first of computers, then of phones and most recently, of tablet devices. (Today, the iPod is the only declining part of Apple's business - but it hardly cares, since those sales have been cannibalised by the firm's newer product lines, rather than by rivals.) For Sony, a similar "halo effect" could arise from PlayStation - but the pathetically timid integration of PlayStation and PSN into a bare handful of flawed devices which we've seen so far doesn't go remotely far enough, and the PlayStation brand itself needs further investment and improvement if it's to develop a particularly radiant halo.

One thing is certain - even if Hirai is absolutely the man for the job, he doesn't have very much time to get it done. Sony is dead in the water in the now-shrinking music player market. Its market share of televisions is shrinking month by month, and risks utter devastation if rumours of an Apple television turn into a real product that grabs a large share of the high-end TV market - and even if not, Sony abandoned development of next-generation OLED displays only weeks before South Korean rivals showed off 55" OLED screens for the consumer market in early January. In mobile phones and tablets, the company is an also-ran. Ironically, its greatest success in cameras in recent years is that it builds the hugely popular camera that's used in the iPhone 4S.

Beset on all sides, the firm's PlayStation efforts remain the sole bright light in its consumer electronics business. On April 1st, Kazuo Hirai will settle into the president and CEO's chair at Sony for the first time - a significant milestone on the long, strange journey of the company's PlayStation division, but not the end by any means. He'd better not take too long redecorating Sir Howard's old office. There's a very, very large amount of work to do.

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Latest comments (12)

K. Al-Hurby Producer/Designer 9 years ago
Fantastic article Rob,

I’m aware that I’m still “young” in experience to this industry, but I think placing Kaz Hirai on the throne for Sony was the smartest thing the company could have done. The Playstation brand is arguably the most recognisable, interactive, live, consumer product Sony has to offer. The sheer amount of marketing and feedback intelligence the PlayStation division gets is incomparable to the other division’s counterparts.
Mr Hirai experience with the PlayStation division, will give a new, solid approach to making Sony products have its prestige again. The lesson that Apple has taught for most companies is; you’re not necessarily buying the hardware, but you’re buying into the brand, and that’s exactly what I feel Sony has lost. What Hirai and his team of consultants will bring to the table is consumer interactivity and the understanding of how to connect customers to the brand – the feeling of familiarity, loyalty and most importantly, the ease of use. I’m old enough to remember the Wow factor people had when their product had the Sony branding – with this new move, they can revive that feeling and recognition.

What Apple has done, and done well is, created a familiarity with the operational control between all of its products. In short, If you’re an experienced user with the i devices, you’ll most likely pick up the other products Apple has to offer easily - because of the familiarity of controls, icons andwhat they mean. This is something Sony HAS to do. When I was working in the retail sector, it was extremely annoying that every new DVD player and TV range Sony releases had its own menu system. Why not take the PlayStation’s Menu UI and make it universal across all products? This will recreate exactly what Apple has done and will give the consumer the confidence in thinking “if I buy Sony, I’ll exactly know how to use it/what to expect”, but most importantly, it will create a recognisable service and ultimately, a stronger brand. This is something Samsung is trying to do with its phones, tablet devices, TVs and Laptop range.

With Mr Hirai in place, I have no doubt he’ll be merging the consumer lessons PlayStation has learnt into the other (relevant) consumer product lines. We’ll be seeing a more cohesive approach between Sony and her product lines in the future.
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Good article, with a few typos/autocorrect issues eg. flare instead of flair

The Playstation brand is now what Walkman was to Sony decades ago. As such, it would only make sense to capitalize on what Sony can come to be recognised as - Quality Home Entertainment Experience or something approximating make believe

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dr. Chee Ming Wong on 3rd February 2012 12:28pm

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Nick Parker Consultant 9 years ago
We shouldn't forget the Sony brand. I was brought up on Bond movies full of Sony branded gadgets; it was the Apple of that generation. PlayStation would have been a more challenging launch has it not had the Sony brand behind it (I know because I was there) which was a significant endorsement of quality and cool. Even now, and remember most of us who comment on here are much closer to changing perceptions of our technology, the general public will still consider Sony to be a quality brand even if it is not as pioneering as before. Kaz and his team have more than just the PlayStation brand to rebuild upon but inside Sony there still lurks a corporate bureaucratic culture of silos which could hamper his aspirations as Howard Stringer found out.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nick Parker on 3rd February 2012 2:53pm

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Show all comments (12)
Ste Hickman Writer 9 years ago
Excellent read Rob. An eye opener for sure.
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Tim Clark Editor in Chief, Future9 years ago
Fascinated to see how that decision to abandon OLED will look in a few years' time. They were a year late to the HDTV party, turned it around for a while selling Bravias to the Bang & Olufsen crowd, but as you point out are now being savagely undercut by (state subsidised) South Korean firms. I had thought the choice of OLED for Vita, plus the fact they seemed to be pioneering the tech with the XEL, might mean they could stake out some next-gen TV ground. Now it's hard to see what their TV offering's USP will be.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises9 years ago
What will happen to Sony if the South Koreans start making gaming consoles? :O
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Tony Johns9 years ago
I do hope that both Nintendo and SONY continue to be involved in Videogame hardware.

They have done amazing consoles both in hardware and even software.

And the 3rd parties have also made allot of advantage of their systems that are in completely different technical markets from each other.

Japan needs both of those companies to continue their hardware businesses. I would hate to see either of them drop out of hardware.
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Jeremy Glazman Programmer 9 years ago
"it's a recognition that the confluence of hardware, software and network services in modern consumer electronics has made videogames into the front line of a war between competing visions of the future of entertainment and communications."

Well said :)
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Rodney Smith Developer 9 years ago
How small is Hirai? He must be tiny that ps3 slim dwarfs him.
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Ste Hickman Writer 9 years ago
"Now it's hard to see what their TV offering's USP will be."

4k resolutions, maybe?

48p like 'The Hobbit'?

Should be interesting to see how they manage that particular 'hurdle'.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ste Hickman on 4th February 2012 3:01pm

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Andy Payne Chair/founder, AppyNation9 years ago
Rob, spot on the money as usual. Many of my peers have got upset when I dare suggest that the plates are moving and the old guard is changing. I was (and still am) a massive Sony fan. When I was a kid, the TV that everyone wanted, coveted even was the Trinitron. I still have one. It still works. It is 25 years old. Not only did Trinitrons have the best picture, they were also the ultimate in cool design. I remember friends coming round to my house and cooing over my Trinitron. Trinitrons were not cheap, in fact they were expensive, but they were the real deal. Phrases like 'aspirational brands' had not been invented by fast talking, high earning marketing types back then. But you wanted one, no matter what the cost, and when you got it, it felt great. Then along came the Walkman, another example of cool meeting function. Sony clearly had the best industrial designers on the planet. When they launched the Playstation is was another amazing piece of kit, even though I had to change my entire business to suit (we had been manufacturing and fulfilment for publishers in the 16 bit and PC space and realised that everything would change, and it did). Sony were Liverpool Football Club. They were winners. Funnily enough, when Sony bought CBS records and Columbia Pictures in the 80's I did not have the same yearn for their brand. I always saw Sony as a manufacturer of gadgets and TV related stuff, but hey ho, that’s me.

But they have lost their way. No longer the icon of cool, others got into the space in terms of functionality, innovation, value and aspiration. Samsung, LG, Apple, Nintendo, Xbox, Google, Amazon, Panasonic et al all have pressed their noses against Sony's glazed world and one by one have broken in and enjoyed the spoils.

I wonder if designers and innovators still lead the company? I am a great believer in people. People run businesses, people buy from people and ultimately people follow other people. That means the businesses that win, win because they are either in a monopolistic position (think energy companies, banks and minerals) or they are exceptionally well led usually by an inspirational character or two. Just think Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin & Larry Page (along with Eric Schmidt), Sir James Dyson, even Sir Richard Branson, they all lead from the front. Look at Tesco who parted company with Sir Terry Leahy in March 2011 and ever since have been fighting and losing a battle with their rivals for market share. People make the difference at all levels. Mr Hirai understands the Sony [&] Playstation brand and it falls on his shoulders to lay out a strategy for Sony which will convince customers, fans, staff, people, everyone, to want Sony back in their lives. This will not be easy, but for my money it will be as much to do with collaboration as it will be to do with innovation.

Sony have collaborated with others in the past, now they must seek vital partners, both in technology and creative digital content to move forward. Above all they need to work out exactly what their consumer offering is and then clearly communicate and deliver it. To do that they probably need to identify who their customer will or should be. My tip would be not to re-invent the wheel, there will be no 'world' exclusive to Sony alone, nowadays there is major competition for audience and the walled gardens are under threat. We have seen the powerhouses of Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook stride ahead and create an audience, build a community and cement their brands with people all over the world. If Sony are to continue to be an entertainment powerhouse of the 21st century, then they should put 'fun' at the top of their list of things to bring and do. Their leaders should smile, be positive and embrace the changing world we are in. They should look at ways of being disruptive, work out how to embrace 'free' and how to reconnect with their loyal fans and find fans in waiting. They do have the ability to disrupt in the console space, indeed there is one very simple, bold and effective move they could make, tomorrow, that would set the cat amongst the pigeons so to speak and breathe some much needed life back into Playstation which would be good for consumers, retailers, developers and publishers alike. It is so simple it is beautiful, but Sony needs to be bold and decisive. And no I am not going to state what it should be ;-)

I will leave that for the high command to call or not. I wish Sony every success. In my world, Sony were and are still cool and I for one would love to see them defy the naysayers and start winning again which is probably where the Liverpool FC similarities need to end:-)
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
One of Sony's big problems has always been their predilection to go their own way with certain technologies, often with less justification than they should. They never really learned the lesson they should have from Betamax.

The original Walkman used standard cassette tapes. The novelty (at the time) of a mini-TRS connector for the headphones was justified by size constraints, and it was "open" and became the new standard anyway. That was one of Sony's great successes.

Betamax could have been a success if Sony had just licensed it out cheaply enough; it was a superior format to VHS after all. But whether through thinking its technical superiority was worth more than it was or just wanting to be different, Sony messed that one up.

Minidisc was (perhaps just barely) justified by its huge technical superiority over any other recordable media of the '90s (particularly in portable devices), but there was no real reason for ATRAC.

There was never a good reason for Memory Stick.

And these days? They got the PSP-2000 right; I could just plug it in with any old USB cable and charge it. That went away with the Go, where even if I had Sony's cable with me, with a non-Sony USB wall charger it still wouldn't work. And now we have the Vita with yet another proprietary connector and they've dropped the ability for me just to plug it in to my PC and transfer files as if it's any USB drive. And let's not forget that we have yet another new memory card format: oh boy!

Sony has great technology and great design, but too often they don't trust that alone to sell their goods, and just have to throw in some form of expensive vendor lock-in. I'd buy even more Sony products if they'd just stop that.
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