The tale of Sony and Android is a strange one. The electronics-maker has produced more Android phones than any reasonably sane person can count -- some of them quite decent devices. Yet by and large, Sony has remained a minor player in the Android market -- an afterthought, even -- particularly here in the States.
With the company's upcoming Xperia Z phone, announced amidst the chaos of the Consumer Electronics Show this week, Sony may have its best shot yet at finally breaking through and becoming a meaningful part of the Android game. But such a fate is still anything but certain -- and Sony's road to relevancy won't be easy.
Hello, Xperia Z
In terms of the phone itself, the Xperia Z is easily Sony's strongest smartphone effort to date. The phone has all the stuff you'd expect from a current high-end device -- a 5-in., 1080p display; a 1.5Ghz quad-core Snapdragon processor with 2GB of RAM; a 13-megapixel camera accompanied by an impressive-sounding sensor -- and, just as important, a few distinguishing touches.
Sony's given the Xperia Z an angular and blocky sort of shape -- a choice that's bound to be a love-it-or-hate-it sort of thing but will certainly make the phone stand out from the pack. The Z also sports a Nexus 4-reminiscent glass back, which gives it a sleek and classy look (even if it does add onto the fragile factor).
Perhaps the most interesting and unusual feature of the Xperia Z is its water-resistant construction: Sony claims the phone can withstand being submerged in a meter of water for as much as 30 minutes at a time. It also utilizes a special "wet finger tracking technology" that lets the screen recognize input even when it's wet. Realistically speaking, I'm not sure how many people actually need that in a smartphone, but it sure is a memorable quality that's practically made for marketing.
And that brings us to Sony's real challenges.
Standout hardware alone isn't enough to sell smartphones these days -- just ask HTC. In fact, Sony and HTC have a lot in common when it comes to their U.S. smartphone struggles.
Both companies are missing three key ingredients that more successful mobile tech manufacturers -- i.e. Samsung -- have mastered:
• Focus. Seriously, have you seen the list of Sony Android phones? You've got the Xperia Active, the Xperia Arc, the Xperia Arc S, the Xperia Mini, Xperia Miro, Xperia Neo, Xperia Acro S, Xperia Ion, Xperia J, Xperia P, Xperia S, Xperia T, Xperia TX... -- I could keep going, but you get the point. It's a convoluted and thinly spread mess that even Rainman couldn't keep straight.
If Sony can manage to stop producing new phones for a few minutes and focus its attention on making a few core products pop, it might just be able to find a place among the Android elite.
• Ubiquity. You want to buy the latest Samsung Galaxy S phone? You can walk into any major carrier and get one today. You want a Sony Android device? Good luck, pal.
Like HTC, Sony needs to find a way to make its products available where consumers are actually shopping. Currently, in the U.S., AT&T is the only carrier that's offered a single Sony smartphone. (Sony has yet to say if or where the Xperia Z will be available.) When Samsung's flagship devices are available everywhere and Sony shows up late to the party on a single network, is it really any surprise there's a huge difference in sales?
• Marketing. Walk up to a random person on the street, and odds are, they'll be familiar with Samsung's Galaxy line of devices. Now try to find someone who's even heard of the Xperia TL. Good luck.
Samsung's done a hell of a job marketing its mobile devices, and its efforts have very much paid off. If Sony wants even a chance of hitting the big leagues, it's gotta step up its efforts and give some meaning to its brand.
So all considered, does the Xperia Z have what it takes to push Sony into the ring of Android relevancy? Quite possibly. The bigger question, though, is whether Sony has what it takes to make the phone matter -- and that's a question only time can answer.
Your move, Sony. We'll be watching.