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Sony seeks mobile rebirth, starting with Core sensor used in wearable tech

Sony is on a quest to duplicate earlier successes like its storied Walkman, but its Xperia smartphones could face troubles cracking a crowded market

February 10, 2014 01:29 PM ET

Computerworld - Now that Sony plans to sell off its fashionable Vaio laptop business and convert its TV business into a subsidiary, the Japanese electronics giant appears poised to beef up its line of mobile products, including smartphones and tablets -- but especially wearable tech.

Sony's SmartBand with Core sensor
Sony's SmartBand with Core sensor, is one of the devices in its Smartwear line of wearable tech products.

At International CES in January, Tokyo-based Sony showed off a small Core sensor for use with its comingSmartWear products. The first product in that line is SmartBand, which works with a new Lifelog app on a smartphone.

Sony revealed few details on the device. The company is expected to release more information about the SmartBand, Core and other wearables at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Feb. 24. Sony is also running a "Wearables Workshop" and a VIP reception at the conference that are clearly meant to generate excitement and press coverage.

Sony might be able to win plenty of customer attention for the emerging wearables market, but it faces an uphill climb in smartphones and tablets where it is getting a late start, analysts said.

In smartphones, research firm IDC ranked Sony Xperia devices seventh globally behind sixth-ranked CoolPad for all of 2013, with a 3.8% market share and shipments of 38 million devices. For its Xperia tablets, Sony wasn't even in the top 15 for the fourth quarter of 2013, with less than 1% of the worldwide tablet market. IDC hasn't begun publishing rankings for wearable tech vendors since the market is relatively new.

Those low smartphone and tablet rankings are somewhat peculiar, since Sony has a storied electronics history that goes back six decades. Sony has launched successful products, including the WalkMan portable audio cassette player first unveiled in 1979, the PlayStation gaming system in 1994 and the Trinitron TV in 1985. Sony was also behind the first-to-market Betamax, which lost out to VHS videocassette technology in the mid-1970s.

Given all it has been through, Sony's move into wearables could signal a kind of rebirth.

"Sony used to be known for design innovation and pushing the envelope," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Over the past few years, that hasn't been the case. If they can recapture that spirit with mobile, they have a shot, particularly in up and coming areas like wearables and other smart devices. Can they build the brand back? We'll have to see if they are up to the challenge."

Sony management "has put mobile right, left and center of their strategy, but I think they need to pick up the pace as they are coming to this from behind," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar WorldPanel.

Moving from seventh place in smartphones into the top five spots in the next five years would be a major feat. "The smartphone market is pretty crowded, with Samsung on top and then Apple, Huawei, LG and Lenovo in the top five," noted Ramon Llamas, an IDC analyst. "Sony would do well to maintain its position in the top 10."

Sony gets high marks for strong design of its new products, "but they need to rethink how they address software and distribution," noted Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insight & Strategy.

Speaking of limited distribution, the only U.S. carrier offering a Sony smartphone is T-Mobile US, which sells the waterproof Sony Xperia Z1S, with a 5-in. display and Android 4.3 at a full retail price of $528.

Sony sells other smartphones, such as the Xperia Z1 on its Web site, but that's not good enough, analysts said.



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