Nokia and Sony - in the recovery room?
- 26 February 2013
- From the section Technology
In Barcelona I've been meeting two men trying to turn around ailing technology superpowers. Nokia's Stephen Elop and Kazuo Hirai of Sony each took over their companies at moments when the markets and consumers had turned against them.
What they also have in common is a resolute cheerfulness in the face of annoying questions about how much longer a recovery is going to take.
Stephen Elop, fresh from unveiling new cheaper additions to Nokia's Lumia smartphone range, was not about to agree with my suggestion that this move downmarket was an admission that things weren't working at the top end.
He insisted that the Lumia 920 had been selling well, and that by broadening the range Nokia's excellent technology would reach a wider audience. What is still open to question, however, is whether the huge gamble Mr Elop took two years ago will pay off.
After his famous "burning platform" memo, he opted to abandon the Symbian operating system, and choose Windows Phone rather than Android as the lifeboat to take Nokia to calmer waters. So far, the attempt to build a third "ecosystem" - in the industry jargon - to rival Apple and Google's systems, has failed to make too much headway.
But in our interview Mr Elop made the valid point that Android was now dominated by Samsung, leaving scant pickings for the rest, whereas the Windows partnership offered Nokia a good route into business customers. He admitted there was still much hard pounding ahead - but seemed convinced that the recent mildly positive financial results were the first signs that the leap onto Microsoft's platform rather than Google's was working.
Sony's Kazuo Hirai has yet to take quite such a big decision since taking the helm at Japan's ailing giant last year. But he has already sold off some assets, cut jobs - and laid out a plan to focus on three areas. Mobile, gaming, and digital imaging - TV and cameras to you and me - is where he sees Sony having to compete hardest.
We talked among other things about last week's bizarre PlayStation 4 "launch" where the lack of an actual console was a disappointment to many. He smiled and said the New York event had just been an early preview, not intended to reveal too much: "That keeps people guessing and that's a good thing."
I put it to him that given Sony's history and its research prowess it was surprising how little impact the company had made in the mobile phone world - he blamed that on a lack of direction in the now dissolved Sony Ericsson partnership. It seems there were all sorts of issues on which the two firms disagreed - including Android.
Things had changed now, he stressed, and mobile was "front and centre" of everything the company did: "If we're not in the smartphone business 100% we're not in the game."
Right now, with a well-reviewed phone in the Xperia Z leading the charge, the outlook is slightly brighter for Sony.
But Kazuo Hirai has a different ecosystem problem from that facing Stephen Elop. The one Sony has chosen, Android, is now very crowded with lots of players all offering something similar. Standing out in a crowd where Samsung's shadow looms ever larger means spending a fortune on marketing, just as smartphone prices come down.
Two corporate leaders, then, with a difficult year ahead of them. Kazuo Hirai has a bigger, more complex task because Sony's business is so multi-faceted - but Stephen Elop probably has less time to prove to his investors that Nokia's big Windows gamble is working.