Missing the bus
A legendary moment in modern geekery was the day in 2001 when Apple’s chief engineer Jon Rubinstein went to Toshiba’s HQ in Japan on a routine courtesy visit. Earlier in the year Steve Jobs had demanded a small music player of him and Rubinstein had replied that the components for such a thing didn’t exist. At the Tokyo HQ Rubinstein was shown a 1.8 inch hard drive that Toshiba engineers had developed but which they couldn’t see a use for. They had no idea that it was exactly what Rubinstein had been missing. As it happened, Steve Jobs was in Tokyo for a different reason the same day. At dinner that evening Rubinstein said to him, ““I know how to do it now. All I need is a cheque for ten million dollars.” Jobs coughed up and the rest is history. And the rest of the Apple’s competitors were history, so far as music players were concerned.
The question I would ask if I worked, especially for Sony, is why the hell didn’t we make the iPod? Sony were not only in the same country as Toshiba but they were, unlike Apple, in the music business. Sony Music and Sony Pictures, Sony Walkman, Sony industry standard video cameras and recording equipment. Sony computers. Talk about a perfect fit. Talk about missing the bus. Talk about being outmanoeuvred. Just as he was to do in the world of tele-communications six years later, Steve Jobs took Apple from a standing start into the position of the most important music company in the world. From right under the noses of Sony.
Their phone business JV with the Scandiwegians was going south too. In the year 2009-2010 alone Sony Ericsson fell from being the world’s fourth biggest seller of mobile phones to the sixth biggest. The writing had been on the wall for two years, ever since the iPhone arrived and SE produced that shocking disgrace of a Symbian UIQ monster, the P1i that I railed against in my first techblog. That monstrosity was more or less a tomb stone.
They gave up on Symbian UIQ (which I actually really liked but which just couldn’t perform the tasks asked of it without crashing or overheating) and produced and are still producing a line of overpriced and wildly underwhelming Xperia smartphones which at first ran Windows Mobile long after the rest of the world knew it was a dead duck. When they finally saw which way the wind blew, the Scandanese combine panicked into rushing out the X10, which no one bought because it ran an out-dated version of Android and couldn’t do anything as well as a cheaper and better HTC phone.
It is hard to believe this, yet sad and true: Sony can hardly be called a trusted name or big hitter these days. Always skating to the puck, never to where the puck is going to be, to borrow Wayne Gretzky’s winning image.
All that can change of course, and let’s hope it does. No one would want to see a mighty and once loved colossus like Sony come crashing down.
Nokia, Nokia – Who’s There-ia?
Nokia, then undisputed number one in mobile phones were, back in 2007, producing low and medium end phones of great usability and huge global popularity. Using power efficient flavours of Symbian and a reliable and simple menu driven interface, hundreds and hundreds of millions were sold and That Ringtone was heard in every corner of the land. Restaurants kept Nokia chargers by the front desk on the off-chance that a diner might need a top up in the evening.
At the higher end, they chugged out silvery plastic oblongs so ugly that it gave one diverticulitis and the squits just to look at them. No one seemed to mind as high end phones weren’t their ‘core business’. But what they didn’t seem to be able to see was that smart phones would soon be the only business to be in. Which is strange because they can be regarded as the pioneers of the smartphone every bit as much as Palm or Handspring.
As I say in that damned blog, I owned just about every model of Nokia Communicator through the Nineties and Noughties. I was sending emails from my phone in 1996 using the first Communicator model, the 9000. To put things in perspective, this was five years before the iPod came into being, a longer period of time than exists between now and the first iPhone. Since Nokia knew what smartphones could do, it can only have been a misreading of the road ahead not to see how quickly the future would slam into their windscreen.