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Lonely at the Top

Howard Stringer is said to be seeking a new President for Sony. Has Kaz Hirai's moment come?

One good question deserves another, so it's fitting that in a week when Sony managed to tackle a long-standing question mark over the firm's videogame division by finally launching Gran Turismo 5, an even bigger question popped its head above the parapet. As reported by Bloomberg and picked up by specialist press the world over, the question is simple - who's next in line to run the whole company?

The tenure of the firm's present boss, the British-born former TV executive Sir Howard Stringer, is not exactly drawing to a close - but the end is in sight, with Stringer himself hinting at retirement in 2013 after the completion of his restructuring plans. It makes sense, in light of this, to name a new president now, essentially allowing a smooth succession by handing down the mantle of Chairman and CEO to an already established leader.

Two names have already emerged as front-runners, at least according to analysts in Tokyo - one of which will be very familiar to games industry types, with Sony Computer Entertainment boss Kazuo Hirai tipped as one of the likely successors. He'll be competing, the rumour-mongers claim, with Hiroshi Yoshioka, presently boss of the consumer products division - which encompasses televisions, cameras and other such devices.

There's a sense of deja vu about the entire affair, from a games perspective. It doesn't seem so long ago that Ken Kutaragi, enjoying the mantle of Sony's golden boy after a decade in which the PlayStation could seemingly do no wrong, was strongly tipped to run the entire company. Few at that time would have predicted a non-Japanese businessman from a media background taking over the engineer-dominated company, let alone the possibility of Kutaragi's departure from Sony Computer Entertainment - and replacement with an executive whose background is in marketing, not designing computer chips.

This time around, those factors are reversed. Hirai is the businessman who's credited, at least within Sony itself (although also increasingly by a wider section of the games business) with turning the company's attitudes around, dragging an engineering-led and notoriously developer-unfriendly division into the 21st century and teaching it to be agile, intelligent and competitive. Whether he's actually succeeded, of course, is a question which it'll take several years to answer, but there's no question but that he's very different from Ken Kutaragi.

Yoshioka, the other front-runner for the job, is a rather different character. Somewhat older than Hirai, he's arguably more representative of the company's old guard. A glance at the men's backgrounds prior to joining Sony demonstrates the difference - both are Sony lifers, but where Hirai graduated with a BA from Tokyo's extremely internationally focused International Christian University, Yoshioka trained as an engineer at Kyoto University. He's been working at an executive level within Sony for many years, but his roots, like that of the company itself, remain in engineering.

The question is, in whose favour does that work? On the one hand, Hirai is the more obvious "continuity" candidate, whose background in media, marketing and working abroad make him a natural choice to follow on from Stringer. However, the choice is not likely to be Stringer's alone - and Sony insiders acknowledge that the the ageing engineers who once dominated the firm entirely remain a powerful force who could push for a candidate more in line with their world-view.

Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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