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?