In today’s iPad-happy landscape, where Apple enjoys full-spectrum cultural dominance of popular computing and where the number one consumer ambition is to slump on a sofa with a Designed in California, Made in China touchscreen device, it seems almost unthinkable that as recently as the early 2000s Apple was nothing more than a cult brand, and that the popular representation of computer nirvana was the Sony Vaio. The news that the Vaio range – long synonymous with quality engineering and great design – is going to be hived off to Japanese private equity group Japan Industrial Partners for around £300m, a tiny fraction of Apple’s US$170bn revenues for 2013 alone, has probably (and poignantly) passed most former Vaio users by.
So what went wrong for Sony’s flagship laptop brand? After some contemplation, our Creative Director & CSO thinks that Vaio could have run toe-to-toe with (and perhaps even beaten) Mac if the struggling Tokyo-headquartered corporation had gone into the middle of the last decade armed with three tactical stratagems:
1. Synergise with the PS2. Quite incredibly given the shared origins of the two devices, Sony did not even attempt to give the Vaio any kind of gaming edge using technology from the PlayStation 2. This omission became even more glaringly obvious with the release of the Sony PSP at the end of 2004: this portable console, essentially a mobile version of the PS2, proved that fitting out Vaios with advanced entertainment capabilities at precisely the time when most laptops were highly deficient in this regard was not merely possible, but eminently doable.
2. Own the OS. With Windows’ unique ‘blue screen’ feature starting to wear thin by the mid-2000s, the time was ripe for Sony to break with convention and fit its PCs with its own OS and multi-format-compatible applications suite. It didn’t have to look far to do this: as users of the PSP will testify, the XrossMediaBar was and still is an attractive, intuitive and memorable operating system which is as robust and reliable as anything dreamt up in Cupertino. LiveArea shows that Sony still has the midas touch in this regard – but do they possess the vision?
3. Drop the Price. With computing power breaking all records and processing capacity prices collapsing, Vaio remained a premium brand – but without the quality to justify the eye-watering price tags. When you can get a machine which works as opposed to one running Windows, functionality wins out over sentiment and familiarity for all but the certain user groups who are prisoners of Microsoft. Most of the rest will run like refugees to the Apple Store.