The day after Apple unveiled its iPad Mini, essentially the company's fifth-generation tablet, I trekked uptown to the W Hotel in New York's Union Square, where more than a half-dozen hardware makers had set up shop to showcase their competing devices. That week, Microsoft was launching its new operating system, Windows 8, the software breathing new life into mobile products from manufacturers such as Sony, HP, and Dell. At the same time, it's also the dependence these companies have on Microsoft that left them trailing years behind Apple in the consumer market. Wasn't such deep reliance on third-party software like Windows a disadvantage?
That's the question I posed to a slew of hardware makers that day, as part of our series on the disruption these OEMs are facing in a world increasingly dominated by smartphones and tablets—Apple, for example, now sells more iPads than these tech giants sell PCs. In candid conversations with top players from HP, Dell, Acer, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba, we discussed a range of topics including Apple, inflection points, and the innovator's dilemma. For Sony Vaio VP Steven Nickel, the answer to my overarching questions—whether Sony's reliance on Windows hurt the company—was a simple one. "I wouldn't say it's a disadvantage," Nickel says. "I think the opportunity is just to see what Windows 8 brings in terms of mobility, and how it opens up opportunities for new form factors. It still enables us to do things that are unique to Sony. So I don't see it as limiting."
Nickel's answers contrasted many of those given by others, including execs from Dell and Acer, who felt their partnerships with Microsoft and Google for software had its handicaps. Nickel's answers also contrasted, in some ways, some of the products he was there to demo. When I ask whether the company is experiencing any sort of innovator's dilemma, Nickel, who tends to delve into corporate speak, says, "Well for us, mobility is in our DNA. Thin and light mobile products are something that we really built a heritage on. To be able to have the operating system and the support around it to further enhance that capability, and to bring the quality that you expect from Sony to it—it enables us to take it to the next level."
Yet for all his talk of mobility—of thinness, of light products—sitting in front of Nickel was the Sony Vaio Tap 20, a gigantic desktop computer designed for what he referred to as "in-home mobility," which actually sounds pretty immobile. It's ironic that the day after Apple rolls out the iPad Mini—a device as paper-thin as it is wafer-light—Sony presents what's essentially the Tablet Humongous. At 20 inches and 11 pounds, the Vaio Tap is a coffin of a computer, seemingly requiring pallbearers to, as Nickel describes, "use it upstairs in the den as a desktop PC, or go down to the kitchen, to set it up to look at some recipes."
But Nickel also praised Windows 8 for the new form factors it enabled, especially compared to Android. "Android is more entertainment focused—that's something we really drive through the Sony tablets," he says. "Windows 8 comes at it from productivity. We're trying to merge somewhere in between—this idea of duel uses. People are now using their PCs for entertainment and productivity, and ultimately, that's what Windows 8 enables us to do. That's why you see these new exciting form factors."
Yet, again, the products in front of Nickel told a different story. Of the three products Sony decided to demo (including the suitcase-size Tap 20), one was the Vaio T13 ultrabook, a laptop not even designed for Windows 8. The device had been released over the summer for Windows 7; the company decided to reintroduce the T13 for the Windows 8 launch, with the same form factor, though the product now included a touch-sensitive screen.
Which made his answer all the more backward when I asked Nickel whether Sony's PC business had reached an inflection point, given the massive growth of Apple's tablet business. (Only the day before, Apple CEO Tim Cook boasted to the world that Apple had just sold its 100 millionth iPad.) "No, because I think you have all these exciting new form factors," Nickel says. "We can bring things to these areas that no one else can."
And I found it particularly surprising that Sony didn't decide to unveil its own standalone Windows 8 tablet. Given the success of the iPad, given the attention paid to Microsoft's Windows-based Surface tablet, and given that Sony already makes Android tablets, you'd think the company would create its own Windows 8 slate. Nickel would only say, "I think there is room for both ideas: for the hybrid [PC] with the attached keyboard, as well as a standalone tablet form factor. There is a fit and customer for each of those different solutions."
Instead, Sony demoed neither solution that day: not a standalone Windows 8 tablet, nor a hybrid PC with an attachable keyboard. Rather, the company showed off the Vaio Duo 11 laptop, a bizarre notebook that looks like something went wrong in the PC-to-tablet metamorphosis (or mutation) process. A thick slab of a keyboard is glued to the bottom of the expensive device, and slides out rather than detaches, making the device either a particularly immobile tablet or a particularly second-rate laptop. Even the way these components work together—with lots of visible moving parts—looks slipshod. As one reviewer put it, "The exposed ribbon cable that attaches to the screen also gives me pause; it gives the PC an unfinished look, and I have definite concerns about its ability to hold up over time."
Ultimately, of all the products I played around with that day, Sony's showcase was easily the least impressive. With so many weak products, lost opportunities, and uncreative form factors, Microsoft should be worried—it too is relying on hardware makers like Sony to make Windows 8 a success. And with observations like the following, Redmond should be especially nervous going into the holiday season: "Overall, from Vaio's strategic point of view," Nickel says, "We're betting heavily on the touch aspect of Windows."
Yes, because touch screens are what will really set Sony apart from every single Windows smartphone, tablet, and PC on the market.
[Image: Flickr user Ken Prosser]