Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.
We heard a rumor last week that Sony was working on new handhelds to compete with devices like the iPad. It sounds like a great idea: a PSP with integrated telephony and e-book functionality could perhaps give everyone in the market a run for their money. But I'm a little skeptical -- Sony's Clié line once defined state-of-the-art PDA, but the company ceded the market to Palm long before the PDA was eventually reborn as the smartphone. If Sony's seriously thinking about getting back to the handheld space, here's some lessons it might learn from its efforts back in the PDA day.
1. Innovation is great but only when you really innovate. Sony led the market in innovation when it entered the PDA space. It offered the first Palm OS devices with removable storage, the first devices that could play back audio and video, and the first high-resolution color devices. All of these clearly drove the market forward. Then the innovations became less innovative and more "gadgetry." There were 3D interfaces for the launcher that were confusing and awkward. Some devices had Bluetooth support but not others. Devices like the NZ-90 (pictured above) added so many features into the mix that it was big, bloated, and nearly useless.* In short, the innovations became less compelling and eventually stood in the way of. I'm worried that Sony's meshing the type of functionality rumored to be its new device without any thought how it all has to work together.
2. Frequent product updates are good, but not on a weekly basis. Sony churned out more new devices from 2002-2004 than any other device manufacturer -- the joke in the industry was that it was Tuesday, so it must be time for another new Clié. It was impossible to figure out what to buy or why to buy it. Buyer's remorse ran high, as users quickly learned to wait to see what was coming next -- there's nothing worse than dropping $500 on a cool new gadget and then seeing it replaced with something better, faster and cheaper in less than a month. Retailers were confused and couldn't push the models through nearly as fast as Sony released them. Buyers faced the "Akihabara" syndrome of too many choices, without direction.
3. Concept cars are cool to look at but not good to drive. Flashy concept cars at auto shows are neat, but there's a reason they don't get released: they're not practical and they would cost too much to produce. But Sony's PDAs were much like concept cars; devices like the NZ-90 and the UX-50 were amazing feats of technology. Problem is, the masses didn't buy them, and the amount Sony spent on its hyped "handheld engine" processor could have never been recouped. Palm focused on a core set of features and refined them at lower prices, which is why the Treo, Tungsten and Zire lines sold as well as they did relative to the Clié.
I hope Sony brings new handhelds to market and gets this right. I'd like to see a new crop of handheld devices that drive the state-of-the-art forward and show us things that would have been impossible in the past. For all my comments, Sony's handhelp products often showed a level of creativity and design that you just couldn't get in another mediocre cloned design. With some real focus, a better understanding of the market and some lessons learned from the past, Sony could be a real contender in the handheld space. Will Sony deliver the next PSP or just another Mylo? We'll just have to wait and see.
*Editor's note: The Clié NZ-90 is the glorious pinnacle of all handheld hardware design, and we will only tolerate this blasphemy because Michael is dead-on with his other points.
Michael Gartenberg is a partner at Altimeter Group. His weblog can be found at gartenblog.net. Contact him at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.