For entertainment hardware companies like Sony, a thriving, all-encompassing online media store is the Holy Grail. It's a glorious balance, in which the customer buys software through the store, and therefore becomes hooked on the hardware to which it's attached. That's how brand loyalty is created.
In other words, that's iTunes.
So I'm not surprised that Sony wants to unify its disparate hardware parts through a far-reaching media store, dubbed the Sony Online Service. An article in BusinessWeek states that this is Sony's answer to iTunes, and though it's not clear whether Sony's executives are actually saying that, they'd be wise not to.
First, a bit of history: Sony has tried the online media store before, with Sony Connect. The store shuttered after three years, and Sony surrendered the proprietary and ill-conceived ATRAC format in favor of the proprietary and ill-conceived Windows Media format.
Thankfully, Sony wised up and added MP3 support over the years, and a new wave of MP3 players, such as the Walkman X, include software for transferring files from iTunes. But if Sony's really expected to challenge iTunes on the music front, consider one statistic: iTunes accounts for 69 percent of all digital music sales in the United states. It's not happening.
The bigger focus for Sony will be video, and to a lesser extent, e-books. On those fronts, Sony can compete because it has devices that let you watch video in the living room. Sony needs to focus here, because TVs and video games are the company's worst-performing categories right now, according to BusinessWeek.
The problem is that nobody really knows what Sony is doing. Is the Sony Online Service software that you download? Is it a cloud service that you'll mostly access directly through devices? Both? Neither? From what I can see, the Sony Online Service is being hyped as an ambitious plan to turn the copmany ship towards profitability, but it's just a plan. I can't even stack it up against the things we hate about iTunes, because we don't know if the services will be at all alike.
Worse yet, the idea of a media store across several devices has no inherent advantage for the consumer. If I buy a video on my Playstation 3, it means nothing to me that the same video store also exists on Sony HDTVs. I'm already watching the video on my TV, so what do I care?
It's just a matter of branding. And when it comes to brands of online media stores, iTunes is a juggernaut. The cold truth is that if Sony really wants a competitive edge, it needs to excel in hardware first. The dedicated legions of media store customers follow.
This story, "Sony Online Service to Challenge iTunes? Fat Chance" was originally published by PCWorld.