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.