Sony ahead of the game

PlayStation 2 is the latest stage in the company's transformation from lumbering giant to world beater

In 1994, when Nobuyuki Idei became the surprise choice to take the helm of Sony, the Japanese electronics giant had blown not just one fuse but several. Sony's music division had been humiliated by George Michael's high-profile campaign to release him from his contract. The ill-fated purchase of Columbia Studios, which gave rise to such spectacular Hollywood turkeys as Hudson Hawk, had left Sony with a loss of $3.2bn (pounds 1.98bn). Memories of its disastrous gamble that Betamax videos would outsell VHS were still vivid. Most serious, however, was that even in 1994 Sony had refused to accept the growing importance of the internet at a time when PC sales in the US had already overtaken those of televisions.

When Idei was chosen, he was dumbstruck. Norio Ohga, Sony's patrician chairman who had just turned 65, promoted Idei ahead of at least 16 more senior executives. John Nathan, Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has studied the relationships within Sony that led to the appointment of Idei. In his book, Sony - The Private Life, he describes how Idei felt he had inherited a "mission impossible" when he learnt of his surprise promotion.

"I felt that running Sony was impossible," Idei said, "because it was a company driven by the founders' vision."

Idei told Nathan how his predecessors Ohga and Akio Morita, Sony's enigmatic co-founder, had mentalities very different to his.

"For Mr Morita, what mattered was the position and proper function of a switch, a start button, on a Sony product. If he took one home and tried it and the switch was hard to reach, that was an `insult' - the engineer responsible had insulted him. Mr Ohga is an artist: he has an artist's pride and an artist's jealousy."

But the days when Sony's interests were best served by the unchecked power of its senior mangement were gone. The appointment of Idei immediately wiped away decades of Sony arrogance as the new man instilled a new humility to the company, bringing Sony into the modern world of rational decision making and accountability. The result is that Sony's performance has shone like a beacon on the otherwise dismal economic landscape of Japan during the 1990s.

One of Idei's first achievements was single-handedly to overturn the international reputation of Japanese businessmen as introverts. The ease with which he mingles with Westerners was demonstrated by his appearance in 1997 at a gathering organised by Wall Street financier Herb Allen. Flanked by the likes of Disney's Michael Eisner and Microsoft's Bill Gates, Idei realised he was the only guest in a suit. Quickly, he changed into a T-shirt advertising Men in Black, a Sony film. "Just a little marketing gimmick," he quipped.

He has broken the national mould on other occasions, not least in March when he announced a plan to close 15 of Sony's 70 factories with the loss of 17,000 jobs. At any time this would have been a daring move in Japan - a country where companies are averse to making redundancies. But coinciding as it did with news of record quarterly earnings of pounds 550m, the decision stunned the nation.

Some of that profit has been generated by a music division which has shrugged off the George Michael case thanks to the success of Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and the Fugees.

Of course, the nuts and bolts of Idei's task have been to ensure that Sony is at the forefront of technological advances rather than trailing in their wake. He realised quickly that Sony could no longer rely simply on the excellence of the hardware that had been the cornerstone of its success. The bombshell was dropped at a technology fair in 1998.

"It won't matter [in the future] whether TV screens are bright or have beautiful resolution," he told a stunned audience. "What matters will be the network: who creates it and who controls the network that distributes it."

Hence the job cuts, which formed part of Sony's move out of the traditional production of TVs and hi-fis in favour of new digital products. He has continued a digitalisation process that began in 1982 with the introduction of the compact disc - Sony still receives a royalty every time a CD is sold. But the digital revolution has much further to run, and Sony's progress is such that it is even threatening to challenge Microsoft.

But amid all the technological buzz words of digitalisation and interactivity, the key to Sony's future may be much more familiar: PlayStation

The rampant success of Sony's computer games console, which has sold more than 50 million units in four years, has underpinned its improved performance, but the market remains fiercely competitive.

Nintendo and Sega, which recently launched its new Dreamcast system, are formidable opponents, but the smart money is on Sony prevailing.

Its successor to PlayStation, known for now as PlayStation2, will not be available until March but the glimpse afforded at he launch last Mon- day in Tokyo has left few doubts about its potential. The graphics, of course, were incredible but it is more practical advantages that bear the hallmark of Idei's pragmatism. Like the way users will be able to play their existing PlayStation games on the new console.

This is typical of Idei, who became the toast of games designers by keeping them abreast of the technical specifications of Sony's products. This explains the number of games available on PlayStation. Ken Kuteragi, Sony's console head, is, like his boss, totally at ease with the key figures in the critical American market.

If reports are to be believed, the computer games market is now so important that even mighty Microsoft is planning to take it on. Even though it co- operated in the creation of Dreamcast, Microsoft is ru-moured to be working on its own console and aiming for a 2000 launch to coincide with that of PlayStation2.

Whatever Bill Gates decides to do, Idei will not be complacent. He explained to Nathan how his sleep is interrupted by worries about whether "Do you dream in Sony?" is the right slogan for a company that has changed so much.

"I worry it could mean `I remember Sony, they used to make wonderful TV sets'."

n `Sony - The Private Life' is published by HarperCollins and costs pounds 19.99.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Sport
Jonatahn Sexton scores a penalty
rugby
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
weird news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: HR Benefits Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum + pro rata: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager / Financial Services

£30000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 1999, a highly r...

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?