Tag Archives: sony

Live sports, new production, high bandwidth will drive 4K adoption

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

The killer app.

There’s not much true 4K ultra high definition content available right now, and it’s going to take time for inventories to build.

Sony Pictures has about 75 feature films and fewer than 100 television episodes available now, according to Rich Berger, senior vice president for advanced platforms at Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

He was the only representative from the production side of the business at a panel session on 4K content at CES yesterday. The rest were all from distributors, which included Netflix, DirecTv, Comcast, M-GO and the Blu-ray association.

Berger said that Sony gets 4K content in two ways: either producing it directly in an ultra HD format, or re-mastering it from sufficiently good 35mm film. Up-converting existing HD programming doesn’t produce acceptable results. At least for for most.

“We have a clear content spec. It’s either full 4K resolution or it’s not ultra HD”, said Phil Goswitz, senior vice president of engineering at DirecTv. “Anything originally shot in HD just isn’t 4K”.

“We’re purists”, agreed Chris Fetner, director of media engineering for Netflix. “Anything with a 4K label was produced in 4K”.

Comcast, though, isn’t as picky. “The more content the better”, said Michael Schreiber, Comcast’s senior vice president for content acquisition. “If it happens to be native that’s great. If it happens to be up-converted, that’s great”.

There are many feature films that can be turned into true 4K content, but that’s not enough. “If you look at HD adoption, the movies arrived first”, said Gozwitz. “But what really drives the adoption by customers in large numbers is sports”. He specifically mentioned the NFL – a key DirecTv programming partner – as one of the organisations that has to commit to ultra HD technology in order for it to grab hold in the consumer mainstream.

Bandwidth requirements are going to be steep. Panel members agreed that current 4K contents needs a minimum of 15 Mbps, although M-GO COO Christophe Louvion said that near term compression improvements will bring that number down to maybe 12 Mbps.

Blu-ray, on the other hand, plans to have a 4K format ready later this year, with products based on it maybe available by next Christmas, according to Victor Matsuda, CFO of the Blu-ray association. Aiming to be the reference standard for ultra HD content, Matsuda said they’re looking at 128 Mbps.

Sony tries to reclaim premium brand glory with $1,120 Walkman

by Steve Blum • ,

The high resolution NW-ZX2 Walkman introduced by Sony yesterday will sell well enough at $1,120, but its purpose isn’t to drive revenue.

It’s a strategic brand positioning move. It’ll be bought by audiophiles, but the news is that Sony’s trying to position itself for high end mobile audio. Sony’s premium reputation has all but disappeared, and the high resolution Walkman is part of the effort to reclaim it that began last year.

North Korea versus Comcast: guess who’s fighting for an open Internet?

by Steve Blum • , , ,

What do you mean, my Netflix is buffering!

As terabytes of emails and other data bounce around the web, the bad guy in the latest mega-crack story is beginning look less like North Korea and more like Sony and its corporate brethren. First, Sony hires one of the more notorious members of the predatory bar to threaten news outlets if they dare to use any of that information. Then it caves to pressure and threats – apparently originating in North Korea – and cancels the release of The Interview.

Fortunately, there are news organisations that aren’t much interested in a contingency fee lawyer’s opinion of journalistic responsibilities or freedom of the press. The Verge (albeit before the warning letter) ran a piece about how Sony and other large studios with the help of their Washington lobbying front, the Motion Picture Association of America, are colluding with state attorneys general to gain the kind of control over Internet traffic they were denied when the Stop Online Piracy Act was blocked in the U.S. congress.

With the help of another major studio owner known for aggressive back room politicking and generally bad corporate citizenship: Comcast.

According to the story in The Verge by Russell Brandom

“We start from the premise that site blocking is a means to an end,” says MPAA general counsel Steven Fabrizio. “There may be other equally effective measures ISPs can take, and that they might be more willing to take voluntarily.” According to the email, the group has retained its own technical experts and is working with Comcast (which owns Universal) to develop techniques for blocking or identifying illegally shared files in transit.

Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, then slammed the studios and their lobbying front in a post on the company’s public policy blog

While we of course have serious legal concerns about all of this, one disappointing part of this story is what this all means for the MPAA itself, an organization founded in part “to promote and defend the First Amendment and artists’ right to free expression.” Why, then, is it trying to secretly censor the Internet?

It’s exactly the kind of self-serving conduct that network neutrality advocates cite as the theoretical dangers of letting monopolistic companies do their own thing. Except now, it doesn’t seem so theoretical.

The irony is breathtaking. Meet the Internet freedom champion of 2014: North Korea.

Sony picks in-house OS for wearables and survival

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

Used to be staying alive was innovation enough.

Google’s try at adapting its Android operating system to specifically support wearable devices isn’t getting much love from manufacturers. Following Samsung’s lead, Sony has decided to make its own Android mod for wearable products, instead of using Google’s Wear platform. It’s a necessary gamble if Sony still wants to be Sony.

The company is trying to remake itself into a mobile-oriented, innovative brand. Like it used to be when Sony launched the Walkman 35 years ago. That’s why they’re unloading the Vaio product range. If they want the brand to mean what it did back in the day, they need to innovate at the operating system level as well as the app and hardware levels.

(Way back when I was working with RCA on the launch of what is now DirecTv, the joke was “what’s the Sony brand worth? Fifty bucks a letter”. OK, maybe not a ROTFLMAO moment, but the $200 premium those four letters fetched was real).

Building and using its own Android adaptation is the way to do that. It gives Sony the ability to tie their wearables more closely to their tablets and phones. If it works, it’ll give them the same kind of advantage Apple will have if it ever extends iOS to wearables. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter because Sony can’t survive as a commodity electronics manufacturer. There’s little opportunity to create magic products if you’re using the same chips and operating system that lead to the same app store as everyone else.

Sony axes legacy PCs, TVs to focus on mobile

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Innovation deficit.

Sony is distancing itself from the soon-to-be-legacy television and personal computer markets, in a effort to play catch up in the mobile device game. The company that redefined color quality in the 1970s is spinning its television business off into a separate subsidiary, and is selling its Vaio computer brand to a Japanese corporate restructuring specialist. It’s a response to what it calls “drastic changes” in the global PC industry…

Sony has determined that the optimal solution is to concentrate its mobile product lineup on smartphones and tablets and to transfer its PC business to a new company.

Five thousand employees – 3% of its workforce – will be cut over the next year. Even so, the company expects to lose a billion dollars in its current fiscal year, which ends in March.

The company is also predicting that it will sell 40 million smartphones in that period, missing its previous forecast by 2 million units. That’s enough to keep Sony in the sub–5% market share club, and well down the list at that. The latest rankings from IDC have Samsung and Apple accounting for nearly half of global smartphone sales at 314 million and 153 million annual units respectively, followed by Huawei, LG and Lenovo at just under 50 million units each.

Sony built its brand on quality and innovation, arguably launching the mobile device industry with the introduction of the Walkman in 1979. While its reputation for quality continues, Sony has followed – not led – market trends for the past twenty years. It certainly needs to jettison TVs and PCs, but even more it needs to rekindle its creative magic in order to survive.

Sony sees but doesn’t raise the mobile game

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

Coincidentally, it costs $200.

As the last MobileCon opens in San Jose, Sony announced today that it’s launching three mobile products in the US: the Xperia Z1 and Z Ultra smartphones and its new Smartwatch 2.

I don’t see any Wow! factor. The smart phones are standard, high-end Android devices and the smart watch seems more or less in line with Samsung’s Gear, although the fact that it can be used with any late model Android device (or so they say) and is a hundred bucks cheaper is a competitive advantage.

Sony can survive just fine in the sub–5% mobile market share club. Unlike Blackberry or Nokia (or Apple, for that matter), Sony is a diversified consumer electronics and digital content company. Like LG, it has a relatively small market share across a wide range of products, sectors and industries. Its competitive advantage is its brand. The joke in the consumer electronics industry used to be: what’s Sony worth? 50 bucks per letter.

That was twenty years ago. Back then, Sony could command a $200 premium on mainstream CE products like televisions and satellite receivers, just on the strength of the brand, which was built on a reputation for quality and innovation. These days, Sony isn’t innovating as much and although its quality is still among the best, the membership in that top group has expanded considerably.

Sony’s strategic positioning is against Samsung across a wide range of product lines, of which mobile phones are just one. Unlike major computer and tech companies, like, say, HP, Dell and Microsoft, it’s known all along that it needs to be in the mobile sector and has hung in through thick and thin. Today’s product announcements are more than enough to keep Sony in the game for the coming months.

Mobile OS buzz for some, deafening silence for others

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , ,

Firefox hasn’t quite landed yet.

Firefox has sharpened the debate over prospects for HTML5. The open source, connectivity-centric mobile operating system developed by the Mozilla Foundation gained a lot of attention at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Sceptical attention, mostly.

When the OS landscape is so thoroughly dominated by two superpowers – Apple and Google – it’s risky to bet on a challenger. Several mobile carriers expressed support, but manufacturers lagged behind. Geeksphone, a small Spanish company, had demo units to show at Barcelona, but missed its February ship date for SDKs. Nice words from LG and Sony amounted to taking out an option.

It’s a lightweight operating system that, like Google Chrome, is little more than a browser and depends on a live Internet connection for most of its functionality. The power is supposed to come from HTML5-based web services. The idea is to write an OS-agnostic app once in HTML5 and serve it to high end browsers running on any kind of mobile phone. So far though, practice has lagged behind promise. Firefox barely rose above novelty status last week.

Samsung was more forthcoming about its plans for Tizen, a Linux-derived open source OS. As predicted, it’ll replace the in-house Bada OS on future lower end smartphones. Ubuntu was on hand promoting its one OS to rule them all concept, essentially a repeat of its pitch at CES earlier this year.

Blackberry and Windows didn’t get much love at all, though. Microsoft put marketing money into the event but, viewed from outside anyway, didn’t rise above the background noise. Despite its loud and awkward relaunch in January, Blackberry was all but ignored.

It’ll be a while before we know if any of these alternatives have genuine traction. Significant consumer market product launches aren’t expected until the fall, which allows plenty of time for manufacturers and carriers to reverse course or accelerate ahead. For now, it’s still an Android and iOS world.

Three elephants still standing

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , , ,

Samsung had their attention at CES 2013.

Samsung left Las Vegas with a firm grip on the industry’s leadership crown. Its CES presence overshadowed other traditional consumer electronics companies, cementing its position as a dominant global technology player.

Paying Bill Clinton to guest star at its keynote address was just icing on the cake. Arguably, the flexible touch screen that Stephen Woo, Samsung’s president of electronic device solutions, also demonstrated on stage drew more attention than the ex-president.

With cutting edge products in pretty much every category present on the CES exhibit floor and the growing strength of its Galaxy tablets and smart phones in the critical mobile sector, Samsung had no peers. Sony and Panasonic tried to measure up, but fell far short. LG also combines success in mobile technology and devices with a full range of consumer electronics products, but lacks the strategic and market presence to lead.

Samsung was on the minds of most of the experts and executives who spoke at CES, and particularly at mobile and telecommunications oriented events and programs. Apple and Google were often mentioned too, but neither was at the show. And both depend on their mobile operating systems – iOS and Android – to maintain market control. Samsung has the luxury of choice. It can build products on top of the current technology leaders or nurture new ones.

Of the four mobile and technology “elephants” going into the show, the loser at CES was Microsoft. With mobile market share scraping along in the sub–5% range and maybe even falling, Windows 8 was an afterthought. Also absent from CES, Microsoft relied on technology partners and manufacturers like, well, Samsung to carry its message. It got little more than lip service.

Facebook and Amazon were most frequently mentioned as Microsoft’s likely replacement at the head of the pack. They didn’t exhibit at CES, either. This year’s show belonged to Samsung.

The mobile phone is the set top box

Long-odds prediction for the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show: the mobile phone will be the set top box. Expect a prototype that tethers a large screen display to a media-rich smart phone. You walk in the room and your stuff appears on the screen. You will only have one channel and it will be whatever you want to watch, where ever you happen to be.

If someone doesn’t roll it out here in Las Vegas this week, you’ll see it shortly from Apple (which is too hip to hang at CES these days) or at a mobile phone event in someplace like Barcelona or Orlando or San Diego, at the latest.

CES starts rolling with press conferences, briefings and product previews. Tuesday is actually pre-Press day – the big boys strut their stuff on Wednesday – but it’s turning into the most interesting day of the show. ASUS began holding its press event on Tuesday a couple of years ago, and MSI joined in. CES Unveiled, which is the official small company press group-grope, also happens Tuesday. By the end of the day, it’ll be pretty clear what the high tech buzz will be for the coming week.

ASUS seems to be trying to position itself as another Apple, talking more about design than technology. It’s not quite in Apple’s league yet, but fresh designs do set it apart from the mainline CE companies. Even Sony looks grey-suit by comparison. MSI seems to be following ASUS’s lead, promising a media extravaganza.

My bet is that ASUS will introduce nicely designed computers and an iPad knock-off that misses on functionality but comes in a couple hundred bucks under Apple. It will then immediately suck the air out of its real product announcements by hyping photoshopped pictures of concept designs that look rad but will never make it to the prototype stage, let alone a production line. MSI will then throw a big party, show off some solid but not bleeding edge products and wonder why ASUS gets better coverage.

More predictions for the coming days…

  • Everyone will promise an iPad clone of one kind or another. None will come close to the integrated elegance of Apple’s product, but buried deep underneath the me-too crowd will be one or two innovations from unknown players with star potential.
  • At least one company will set itself up for iPad-like success or PlasticLogic-like embarrassment by showing a tablet that combines a next-gen e-reader’s thin, light form factor and low power consumption with a touch-screen and basic productivity apps.
  • Cisco will once again offer the show’s most autistic press non-conference and walk away patting itself on its corporate back.
  • The big, old school CE players will showcase the usual upgrades of existing product lines, but won’t have anything truly new to offer.
  • The wild card will be the CE company that finally figures out a usable user interface for IPTV. Thomson’s Joe Clayton was right fifteen years ago when he called video navigation the coming killer app of the 21st Century. We’re still waiting.
  • Look for bigger, brighter displays and fewer boxes. All the electronics for everything worth shipping to a store can pretty much fit onto a couple of circuit boards and into the case of any consumer-grade display.
  • Expect less emphasis on company app stores and more on turn-it-on-and-use-it functionality. Last year, CE companies flogged dozens of partnerships with high profile consumer brands. Not because consumers wanted it, but because they couldn’t think of anything else to say. This year they’ll have a better idea of the customer experience they’re actually trying to sell.
  • Last year, the cool new thing was bleeding edge input devices that responded to waving fingers and heavy breathing. Good stuff and there will be more of it this year, in productized form.

We’ll know soon enough. The fun is about to begin.


by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

The set top box is on the run, harried away by television manufacturers. Toshiba sounded the hunting horn this morning, unveiling its Cell TV product line. Don’t be fooled by the name, it’s a classic case of branding in a vacuum. It has nothing to do with mobile phones. It’s a computer morphed into a set top box and wrapped with a big screen TV. The set top box is the TV.

Toshiba Cell TV
 Spot the set top box
Toshiba calls the chip that powers it the Cell TV Broadband Engine, which was developed in a joint venture with Sony and IBM. Details were sketchy at the press conference. All Scott Ramirez, Toshiba’s marketing VP for television, could say was “maybe you can ask one of the Japanese guys.” That I’ll do at their booth tomorrow.

They did know that the chip has 8 cores and is capable of 200 GFLOPS. The TV set that’s built around it also has a 1TB hard disk drive and all the networking capability – wired and wireless – anyone could want. It does Internet TV and social networking, works as a home media server and a video phone, and, they say, can convert standard 2D television into 3D. One highlighted feature is its ability to filter Internet noise and process video streams in real time, to narrow the gap between cable/satellite and Internet delivery.

Quite the change from last year, when all the TV set guys said they were putting an Ethernet port into all their products, but didn’t quite know what anyone would do with it. This year, it looks like Toshiba, at least, is getting it right. Take a ton of computing power, use most of it to enhance video quality, save a tiny bit for networking, navigation and sharing, and give it a consumer-friendly user interface that actually does the job.

They’ve turned set top box technology into just another feature set, and integrated it into their product line. Fewer gizmos in the living room and fewer start-up plays in the consumer video space mean content creators and online services will have the same direct path to the living room television that they do to a desktop computer.