Posted by: Kenji Hall on September 10, 2008
Sony (SNE) has a reputation for making finely crafted electronics with clumsy software. That’s because the company’s engineers have long focused on cramming as many whiz-bang technologies into their products as possible rather than using online services to add cool new features.
But in mid-October, Sony will launch a new product in Japan that doesn’t run on silicon chips, isn’t made at a Hollywood studio, and doesn’t really belong to either of the company’s core entertainment and electronics businesses. Dubbed Life-X, it’s a Web site that will act as both online diary and communication tool. The free site, which will begin a closed test in late September, lets PC and cellphone users pool photos, videos and blogs, either by direct uploads or by linking to their accounts on other Web sites such as flickr (YHOO), Picasa (GOOG) and Twitter. They can then invite friends and family who can view the site using a Net-connected PC (including Macs) or cellphone, or with Sony’s flat-panel TVs and PlayStation gaming equipment.
The move is part of CEO Howard Stringer’s effort to get the company to make gizmos that are more compatible with online services. Sony has a number of online services that target individual products (Bravia Link for TVs and eyevio for video cameras, for instance). But Life-X may be first Sony initiative to try to connect an array of products over the Net. So you would expect it to be a big focus for the company.
That wasn’t how it appeared, though, at the Sept. 10 announcement. Senior executives mentioned the service in passing during a press event held at a Tokyo hotel where Sony was hosting its annual convention for Japanese retailers. (The main topic: Sony’s year-end marketing strategy in Japan and its launch of a new top-of-the-line single-lens-reflex camera.) The Life-X news conference took place an hour later, in a small conference room. It almost seemed an afterthought.
Life-X is the brainchild of Shinji Yuhara, a thin, polite 33-year-old with a fashionably mussed-up hairdo who previously did marketing in Sony’s Vaio computer group. When he started the project a year ago, he had few resources. “There were initially 1.5 of us working on it,” he says. He wouldn’t say what it cost to develop the site but he admits his budget was small. And the hardest part wasn’t making the technology work. It was finding allies inside Sony among the higher-ups who would support his idea. He got that from a group that was programming a Net browser-like window that would appear on the screens of Sony’s liquid-crystal-display TVs. “After that the pace picked up,” he says. He showed the site last December at a regularly held internal technology exhibition, to rave reviews.
Yuhara designed the site to resemble a giant table. So users view their digital photos, videos and notes as semi-overlapping items, in chronological order, spread across a virtual wooden slab. He demonstrated by taking a photo with a cellphone’s camera and sending it in as an attachment to an email to the site. Then he accessed the photo from a Sony TV, a PC, a PlayStation 3 and a PSP.
The idea behind Life-X will be familiar to anyone who uses Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites. Those sites give outside programmers the tools to create new software for users. Life-X isn’t there yet. Yuhara’s crew hasn’t even added tools to let users customize the site’s look to their liking. And there isn’t a search box to find past uploads; frustratingly, you still have to scroll back manually, though you can narrow it down by file type. But the project itself is symbolic for Sony, which has long viewed the Net with suspicion. Two years ago, when engineers were working on a prototype service that would let Sony cameras link easily to photo-sharing sites such as flickr, they couldn't get past the company's firewall to access the Net services themselves, according to some people who have worked with the company. They solved the problem by installing a separate broadband network line.
For now Yuhara says there’s no plan to targets users with ads. The so-called “business plan” is mainly to give Sony’s products a way to talk to each other so products that were originally for entertainment can also be used for communication. And Sony fans overseas will have to wait for some time to get a non-Japanese version.