Sony sticks with phones, but must summon the spirit of the Walkman to be relevant

OPINION: Sony is staying the course with Android phones after signing a new multi-year processor agreement with Qualcomm. Now it’s time for Sony to get serious about actually selling some of them.

Despite speculation the Xperia line of Android smartphones might be reaching the end of its mortal coil – given the limited adoption and high prices compared to competitors – Sony will be making Snapdragon-powered Android phones for years to come.

We welcome this news. The Sony Xperia 1 V powered by the most recent Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform is an absolutely brilliant Android phone that’s up there with the best of them. We’re now likely to see the sixth version of that device powered by Qualcomm’s next flagship processor too. Good news.

A joint press release from the two companies reads: “Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. announced that it has extended its collaboration with Snapdragon platforms powering Sony’s future smartphones. The companies agreed to work together on the next generations of premium, high-, and mid-tier smartphones.”

All good right? Well not really. Sony can pour everything – its expertise in display and camera technology, its industrial design nous, it’s decades of audio experience – into creating a brilliant smartphone package, but the fact is, very few people are buying them.

The Sony Xperia 1 V, for instance, received a 4.5-star score in our review earlier this month. Our reviewer Alan Martin said it “barely puts a foot wrong.” Yet it’s barely a blip on the radar, struggling to notch even a percentage point of market share in most territories where it sells phones. It’s way behind the identikit Chinese manufacturers like Oppo and OnePlus that, to be frank, carry absolutely none of Sony’s prestige.

Sony attempts to wow us with specs by cramming its very best technology into the handsets and expecting regular consumers to look at the spec sheet and reach for their wallets. It’s not enough. It might work for TVs where people have a specific idea of exactly what they want, but it isn’t working on enough people in this realm.

Our reviewer concluded: “The Sony Xperia 1 V is a superb phone that barely puts a foot wrong. It’s lightning-fast with a great screen, enviable battery life and a superb camera array. You might quibble with the design, which remains an acquired taste, but it does everything exceptionally.

“The price, however, remains so out of kilter with the market and Sony’s minnow-like status in it that you can’t imagine it giving the Apples, Samsungs and Xiaomis of this world much cause for concern.”

That Walkman spirit

Therein lies the problem. Sony is making brilliant devices, but it must find a way to make them feel relevant once again. The company needs to somehow rediscover the mass appeal it found with the Walkman personal cassette player all those years ago, and that it still enjoys today with the PlayStation brand.

Easier said than done. How much mileage is there in the smartphone form factor these days anyway? Is there a Walkman moment or a PlayStation moment even out there?

But to start with, Sony could price it’s handsets a little more aggressively to at least get back in the conversation with mainstream smartphone owners.

It’s time for Sony to meet people where they’re at and stop charging Apple what does for a top iPhone or Samsung does for a flagship Galaxy. Be willing to take a hit to get back in the game.

Secondly, Sony could lean into what it does well even more. For example, there’s no reason the spirit of the PlayStation ‘Project Q’ handheld can’t be transitioned into a smartphone.

To go even farther, Sony is big into high-end audio too and with Spotify about to join the streaming services offering HiFi streaming, there’s loads Sony could do here too. The Xperia 1 V is already arguably the best in the business with its 3.5mm jack, as well as support for high resolution audio over wired and wireless connections.

There’s a refreshed appetite among consumers for audio quality beyond the convenience of streaming and true wireless buds. Shout that from the absolute rooftops and sell people on enjoying sound quality you just can’t on competing devices.

Go to town on what those cameras can do. Hell, half the industry uses the sensors you make, it’s about time you reaped the benefit of that before they do. Perhaps the next time you have a breakthrough, debut it on your own phones first!

Sony must couple its technical expertise for creating brilliant devices with something that captures the imagination of consumers once again. Otherwise why keep going? Why keep building smartphones?

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