Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai Is Focused on ‘Sonyness’

At D11, Sony's head honcho talks about the PlayStation 4, 4K video, and the company's challenges.

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Asa Mathat / D: All Things Digital

Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai speaks at D on May 29, 2013

The final session on the final day of this year’s D conference was an unusual one: Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher chatting with San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York and Sony CEO Kazuo “Kaz” Hirai.

Much of the conversation concerned Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ new home in Santa Clara, California, which is scheduled to open next year. The team and Sony are collaborating on technology for the venue, and while the stuff they talked about was thin on concrete details — it might involve 4K content and services to let you order food from your gadget — it was intriguing enough to make me want to check it out when the place opens. And I hate football.

Some of the discussion, however, was on general Sony news — which, between Sony’s ongoing efforts to turn around its electronics business, the upcoming PlayStation 4 and hedge fund manager Dan Loeb’s current attempt to convince Sony that it should spin off its entertainment business, is not in short supply. (During the Q&A portion of the D11 session, one reporter asked Hirai if Sony should simply get out of the hardware business — which is not a question that would have occurred to anyone back in the era when Sony dominated consumer electronics.)

After the session ended, Hirai continued the conversation in an interview with several tech journalists, including me. The main thing he had to say about the idea of breaking up Sony was that the board is considering Loeb’s proposal. But he made the case for Sony benefiting from being a company that both creates content and manufactures devices used for consuming content. Just as Sony Electronics President Phil Molyneux told me at CES in January, Hirai says that Sony is well-positioned to drive adoption of super-duper-high-resolution 4K TV, since it makes TVs, both professional and consumer cameras, movies and home-video versions of those movies.

“We obviously can’t do it alone,” Hirai says. “It will take time, but it will be time well spent.”

Transitions such as 4K require “collaborative work of electronics manufacturers, people who make content, all the network carriers — all the people involved in that delivery need to make sure they’re pushing the content and taking a long-term view,” Hirai says. “That’s exactly what happened with color television and with HD, and we’re still in that process with 3D.”

As for the PlayStation 4, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it — some of which Sony will reveal at its press event at the E3 conference in Los Angeles in a couple of weeks. But one overarching theme is already clear: Sony thinks that game consoles should still be primarily about games. Unlike Microsoft with its Xbox One, Sony isn’t planning to reinvent its game box into a Swiss Army Knife of entertainment.

The PS4 will have streaming video and other non-gaming functionality, as the PlayStation 3 does. But speaking of the PS4’s development and positioning, Hirai said that “the most important thing we need to make sure we do initially is agree and understand that the PS4 is a great video game console that appeals to video gamers.”

Hirai, a 29-year Sony veteran, became the company’s president and CEO in April of 2012; earlier this month, it reported its first annual profit in five years. The company, he says, has “stopped the bleeding — not 100 percent, but heading in the right direction.”

“Over the past year, I’ve been spending a quarter of my time traveling around the world going to various parts of Sony, basically learning what the folks on the ground are thinking.” Now, he says, “I’m focused on those things that propel Sony to that level of Sonyness that made us once famous. The DNA is still there.”

Sonyness, in its classic form, involved the company creating multiple products that weren’t just good; they were also dominant cultural forces, such as the Walkman and the PlayStation 2. It’s been a long time, however, since Sony drove the agenda for the entire consumer-electronics industry. (If you want to name a specific date when that era ended, you might pick October 23, 2001 — the day Apple unveiled the original iPod.)

“I fundamentally believe that whether it’s consuming content or enjoying music or watching video, accessing information, sharing content — with all the things we do digitally, unfortunately there are lots of barriers,” Hirai told the tech journalists during his interview session. To ensure that the company’s future is full of Sonyness, he says, it needs “to innovate on two fronts: pushing current categories, and the other is products that could be out there, some wacky products that fundamentally change how people enjoy content.”

What sort of wacky products? “Just like Tim, I’m not going to get into specifics,” Hirai said, eliciting laughter with the reference to Apple CEO Tim Cook, D11’s first interviewee. Sony still has a long way to go, but it would be nice to think that it could still come up with new products which, like the Walkman, end up being lasting symbols of epoch-shifting innovation and success.