Why Japanese firms can't compete with Apple and Samsung

The Economist offers yet another overview of why Japanese electronics companies are having so many problems competing with foreign rivals.

FOR Sony it was a bittersweet moment. On July 1st the firm bid a final farewell to its Vaio personal computers, a global brand which won such a devoted following after its launch in 1996 that the late Steve Jobs, a fan of Sony in its glory days, once asked to equip it with his Apple Mac operating system. Cut off from its parent, Vaio is floundering. Since Sony announced its sale to a Japanese private-equity fund, in February, it has suffered a slump in its market share in Japan to just 2%, down from 10% at the start of 2014.

... If their chief executives were visionary leaders willing to take risks, Japanese electronics firms could do much to regain their lost lustre, says Roderick Lappin, who heads the Japanese operations of China’s fast-rising Lenovo. Their unrivalled engineering, though often in excess of customers’ needs, is still an advantage, he says. They sit on a trove of intellectual property in the form of patents. Much of this could prove invaluable in the field of “wearable” technology or in the much-hyped “internet of things”, in which appliances, equipment and even pets may in future be wirelessly web-connected.

The "hard decisions to make" narrative of amazing engineering vs corporate unweildiness is convincing enough, but it underplays the fact that modern electronics are about more than hardware. The products themselves are weak in ways that tech geeks and business writers alike find hard to appreciate.

Take, for example, Sony's RX series of pocket cameras. When it comes to image quality--the "engineering"--they're in a league of their own. They're pricey, but the best.

But beyond hardware engineering, they're very badly designed. The menu system is a difficult mess. The associated apps are rudimentary, crashy, and larded with unprofessional social networking features and branding. Even the new accessory-shoe system--one of several Sony has created--suffers from incompatible pairings within its own ecosystem. Furthermore, this fact is hard to find out, because Sony has a separate info page for every country on earth, for every last gadget, and compatibility information is often vague or missing.

Who is going to wear this stuff or control their homes with cutting-edge Japanese technology if it's hard to use?

Notable Replies

  1. Take, for example, Sony's RX series of pocket cameras. When it comes to image quality--the "engineering"--they're in a league of their own. They're pricey, but the best.

    But Nikon is Japanese. Canon is Japanese. Are these cameras badly designed?

  2. While I'm not surprised by the Economist concluding that workers being hard to fire and management not taking (unspecified) bold risks is the problem; I am skeptical.

    If they were merely hidebound, wouldn't the expected symptoms be 'still produces outstanding products; but not necessarily the ones people want' rather than 'Er, Sony? didn't they make minidisks and rootkits or something?'

    With something like Vaio, they were always expensive and hostile in certain respects; but there was a time when they also made a variety of pieces that you wanted even if you couldn't necessarily afford them. Back when the 'Pentium 4 Mobile' was still being treated as a perfectly reasonable product, rather than a contradiction in terms, they were the PC OEM that did the thinnest, the lightest, the ultra-portablest.

    Now? It's been at least five years, probably closer to a decade, since I've even seen one that warranted a second glance, despite the fact that what they used to do is now wildly popular, Intel actually ships the right silicon for the job, and so on. If mere inertia were at work, surely they could at least offer a few spec-bumped models that were as cool as what they did 10 years ago?

  3. The absolute bloodbath in phones is particularly embarrassing since the Japanese market has long been the most featurey of the featurephone markets. Talking about how amazing Japanese phones were was pretty much a genre in tech journalism back when the US market was 'whatever Verizon puked up, or Blackberry'. Now, Not. So. Much. Even aside from Apple, they are barely up to the challenge of building an android handset worth looking at, which is a bit surprising given that they'd just have to let their traditional hardware engineering strength go to work while resisting the impulse to touch the software...

  4. The Economist. I love to always have it in the restroom...in case of
    an emergency. You know in case I forget to replenish the stock of rolls.
    Seriously , we have been getting it it for free for years now. And I
    have to suffer the stupid headlines and once in a while I take a pick at
    something I'm interested in...Hoping I don't have to face their
    inexplicable lack of balanced analysis. They are serving the same soup
    that Fox news is serving , with the same simplifications , but they
    simply intellectualize it.Pathetic.
    Anyway , I can't comment on a source I don't find trustworthy.

  5. This is kind of the point--that way of thinking is just not their way at all. There is an entire hacking community built around unauthorized camera firmware improvement. Adding in professional features, higher video bitrates, improved audio performance, exposing serious hardware hardly used by default...

    See, for example, Magic Lantern: http://www.magiclantern.fm

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