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Sony's run out of ideas for its smartphones

Engadget Engadget 2/09/2016 Daniel Cooper
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If the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results, then someone needs to check in on Sony. Every six months, the company announces a handset in the hope of making some tiny level of impact on the mobile industry. And every six months, those same devices are rated as being generally fine, but not as compelling or cheap as alternatives from rival companies. You'd think that, after a couple of years of this crushingly predictable cycle, someone would have suggested a change. Well, you'd have hoped so, because the Xperia XZ just feels like more of the same.

The new Xperia XZ isn't a bad phone, by any means, but it's little more than a glorified polish job on the Xperia X Performance. That was Sony's early-2016 flagship and when we reviewed it, our Chris Velazco called it "$700 worth of disappointment." But this isn't just a one-off, it's the latest in a series of conservative, underwhelming handsets that have failed to click with buyers across the world. Technology purchases like smartphones are meant to excite you -- especially if you're spending the better part of a grand on one -- and Sony simply can't do that.

In order to illustrate Sony's malaise, it's worth looking at the list of flagship-level handsets that it's launched since the start of 2013. This list of devices covers three eras of Sony, immediately before and during Kaz Hirai's much vaunted "One Sony" turnaround strategy, as well as his subsequent U-turn when it came to mobile. At the start of 2015, Hirai said that the mobile division would now simply produce a handful of devices each year in the hope of keeping skilled employees and facilities around just in case future technologies needed them.

  • Xperia Z - (January 13)
  • Xperia ZR - (January 13)
  • Xperia ZL - (January 13)
  • Xperia Z1 - (September 13)
  • Xperia Z1s - (September 13)
  • Xperia Z1 compact - (January 14)
  • Xperia Z2 - (February 14)
  • Xperia Z3 - (September 14)
  • Xperia Z3 compact - (September 14)
  • Xperia Z3+ - (April 15)
  • Xperia Z5 - (September 15)
  • Xpera Z5 compact - (September 15)
  • Xperia Z5 premium - (September 15)
  • Xperia X - (February 16)
  • Xperia XA - (February 16)
  • Xperia X performance - (February 16)

Sony's defenders would point to Samsung and say that both companies have a similar Spring-to-Fall release cycle. But Samsung caters to two distinct user groups with two very different products in the form of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note handsets. There's also the fact that Samsung is happy burning billions on advertising to support its devices, in stark contrast to Sony'srelatively empty pockets.

If Sony can't compete with Samsung's financial muscle, then it should probably attempt to innovate its way out of trouble. Except that's going to be a problem too, since -- right now -- there are no new technological worlds to conquer in smartphones. Last year, Sony added 4K displays to its flagship Z5 Premium with predictably beautiful, but otherwise pointless, results. The fact that the Xperia XZ ships with a 1080p screen shows that wiser heads prevailed this year.

That doesn't leave Sony with many places to go, and there's not much it can do in hardware, despite its legendary expertise. After all, LG couldn't make a big impact with the "friends" ecosystem that surrounded the G5 and Motorola doesn't appear to have set the world on fire with its own version. So that just leaves software, an area where Sony notoriously lags behind its Android rivals.

Then there's the fact that the smartphone world is slowly beginning to crunch and, much like the tablet space, it won't be long before several manufacturers pull out of the market. We've reported on this problem a few times, but everyone who can afford a smartphone already has one, and fewer people feel the need to replace them once every two years. In that vacuum, it's price, rather than quality, that has become a big driver for people's purchases — which is why low-or-no-margin companies like Huawei and OnePlus have become so huge. Oh, and if that wasn't bad enough, Samsung is targeting Japan for its next big growth opportunity: parking its tanks directly on Sony's lawn.

Given that Sony has very few places that it can turn, I asked my colleagues what they would do in its place. The most repeated answer was "Vita Phone," a device that would combine the company's (under-loved) gaming handheld with a smartphone. Of course, Sony's been there already with the Xperia Play and other companies have tried to blend gaming with smartphones -- wave hello, Nokia's N-Gage, with no success. Then again, Sony is now at the point where it's got so little to lose that maybe a little bit of left-field alchemy is exactly what it needs.

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