Trinitron. Betamax. Walkman. CD. MiniDisc. PlayStation. Blu-ray.
All of those things have come from Sony (SNE). Only one of them remains at all relevant. (I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the MiniDisc.)
Wednesday, Sony introduced its new PlayStation 4 gaming console to the world. The last time Sony had such a major upgrade to its gaming system was November 2006, which seems like eons ago. Think about it: When the PlayStation 3 was introduced:
There were no iPhones.
There was no Android.
There was no iPad, nor any modern tablets.
There was no Angry Birds.
Netflix could send video directly to your home—by mail.
This isn’t just a walk down memory lane. All of these developments have, in different ways, upended the traditional structure of console gaming, and none of them came from Sony.
Today we play games on mobile devices with abandon. Smartphones and tablets may not provide the experience that harder-core gamers look for, but they certainly satisfy the much larger group of occasional players. We’re accustomed to deviceless services now—streaming Netflix (NFLX) requires a commoditized piece of hardware that’s as unobtrusive as a drinks coaster.
Sony has a proud tradition of making great hardware. Maybe too proud: The company continues to develop new technologies, only to misjudge what consumers want. Sony was the first major manufacturer of an e-book reader, long before the Kindle, but the device was bogged down with a clumsy syncing process and a limited library of titles.
The PS4 is not at all the same: It’s the fourth generation of a franchise that has been, at times, the only bright spot in Sony’s constellation of products. But developing a new console—even an extremely capable one—seems somewhat out of step at a time when the idea of the console itself is in question.