CES 2013: The View from Sony’s Phil Molyneux

Sony Electronics' president on gadgets and 4K TV -- and why the company isn't talking so much about 3D these days.

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Sony Electronics President Phil Molyneux shows off the company's new 55" and 65" 4K TVs during Sony's CES 2013 press conference

The International Consumer Electronics Show may have a long-standing reputation for hype and hoopla, but overall, I found this year’s edition to be relatively restrained on the over-the-top pizzazz front. One striking example was Sony‘s press conference. There were no celebrity guests or special effects — just Sony executives showing off Sony products onstage. Sure, the execs lavished praise on the gear, and some of the items were technology concepts which may never reach consumers in their current form. But it was still refreshingly low-key by CES standards.

One of those executives was Phil Molyneux, a Sony employee since 1987 and the president of Sony Electronics since 2010. Later in the week, when I got the chance to chat with him, I told him that I found the press conference to be more focused on, well, stuff than usual. He told me that was intentional. And when I asked him what Sony’s big story was for CES 2013, he said “We’ve got more than one story — that’s the beautiful thing.” The goal with the press conference, he told me, was to show off multiple Sony products and technologies and explain how they work together.

“Particularly with the Sony One-touch demonstrations, it’s about how the consumers can use products from Sony to easily use their content,” Molyneux said. One-touch is Sony’s brand for a gadget-linking feature based on Near-Field Communications (NFC); it lets you, for instance, send music from the company’s new Xperia Z smartphone to a Sony speaker by tapping the phone on the speaker.

The Xperia Z was the first Sony smartphone to debut at CES since the company took full control of its phone unit, which was formerly a joint venture with Ericsson and distinct from the rest of its electronics business. Molyneux told me that it was crucial for Sony to create its own phones and make them work well with other Sony products: “The handset is going to be the sensor of consumers’ lives — how they manage their content, how they communicate, how they connect to products on the go.”

Once upon a time, Sony had a reputation for trying to spur the sales of lots of Sony products by developing its own Sony-only technologies rather than embracing industry standards — an approach which sounds a little like Apple‘s current modus operandi, and which eventually hurt Sony’s reputation. Molyneux says that emphasizing features such as One-touch doesn’t mean that the company is going back to being proprietary and exclusionary. “This is NFC, it’s an industry standard,” Molyneux said. “We recognize that consumers want to make their own choices. Our products have to be better products.”

“To be frank, we diluted ourselves by not focusing enough on the premium side, by getting too involved in the commodity end of the market,” Molyneux told me. “We’ve rebalanced that.”

One other huge CES subject for Sony — and all the other major TV makers at the show — was 4K TV, the super-high-resolution standard that’s also known as UltraHD. During its press conference, the company showed 65″ and 55″ models, plus a 56″ 4K TV which uses OLED display technology.

For Sony, Molyneux told me, 4K has mattered for years, beginning in theaters, where over 13,000 screens now use Sony 4K projection equipment. It’s also selling 4K cameras to Hollywood and is teasing consumers with a 4K prosumer camera prototype. And it’s launching a 4K download service and producing Sony Pictures Blu-rays from 4K masters so their 1080p video looks good when upscaled back to 4K.

But while one of Sony’s major CES messages was that 4K is here now, that’s only true for consumers whose TV-buying budgets run to five digits. The 55″ and 65″ TVs are due to arrive in stores in the spring; the price hasn’t been set, but their 85″ big brother goes for $25,000. The OLED version, meanwhile, is a prototype, with neither a price nor a release date attached.

I’m enthralled by 4K myself — the TVs from Sony and others were showing by far the most eyepopping, lifelike video I’ve ever seen — but I mentioned to Molyneux that other CES attendees I talked to tended to be hung up on all the obstacles still preventing it from being affordable and pervasive. Molyneux said that 4K was making steady progress, and that new technologies always need time: “HD took about 30 years,” he told me, but 4K is advancing “vastly quicker by a massive amount.”

One phrase was conspicuous by its absence during Sony’s press conference: 3D. The technology has been a major focus of Sony trade-show events — I attended one at which everybody in the audience donned glasses to watch a 3D video livestream of the press conference going on right in front of our eyes — but got nary a mention this year.

According to Molyneux, that’s not because TV buyers rejected 3D — it’s just that it’s now a default feature: “All of our new TVs are 3D capable, it’s embedded. Consumers understand 3D, they enjoy 3D…That’s established and we’re turning our attention to 4K.”

While the 2013 CES seemed to be a bustling success to me, it was also the subject of more skepticism than usual.¬†Grumbling journalists contended that the show is rapidly losing its relevance, and everyone wondered if Microsoft’s decision to pull out of the show floor was a harbinger of more big-company defections to come. So I ended my conversation with Molyneux by asking for his take on CES. (As usual, Sony had one of the largest exhibit spaces, with a sprawling booth which took up much of the back end of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s central hall.)

He gave the show an unqualified thumbs-up. “We’re very careful about how we invest and where we invest,” he told me. “We continuously review the conferences we attend. From a CES experience, the attendees will go up once again [this year], the exhibitors will go up once again.”

“This is still the global platform for the industry — we’ll certainly be here next year.”