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
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss