Ina Fried

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Sony’s Kazuo Hirai on 3-D, Phones and Tablets, at AsiaD

Sony, a pioneer in consumer electronics, is looking to regain lost ground with its latest generation of tablets and game players.

One of the key players in that effort is Kazuo Hirai, a longtime game unit executive who is now widely seen as second in command of the entire company behind CEO Howard Stringer.

The company continues to have challenges, though, with its next-generation Vita game player delayed until next year and its first Android tablets just now making their way into the global market.

8:07 am: Just getting started here on the final day of AsiaD.

On his role: If it is a product that is being picked up by a consumer and it’s got the Sony name on it, it’s under my name.

8:09 am: Talking about the TV business.

Hirai says the jury is still out on 3-D, but there is a chicken-and-egg problem.

“It really is dependent on how much good content there is.”

One of the driving factors is probably going to be gaming, he said, because it appeals to a younger set. And, because it is not tied to live content, it is easier to tweak 3-D to make it a good experience.

“Gamers are willing to try new things.”

8:12 am: What about Internet-connected TVs? Those also haven’t taken off all that well, Walt says.

Hirai: “I think that it is a function of several things. Again, it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg.”

8:16 am: On Google TV and Apple TV: Everyone is looking for a prominent space in the living room.

“It’s a very competitive market,” Hirai said.

If it is a fight for the living room, the TV is a natural way to get into that space.

Game consoles are another way, as Sony has done with PlayStation 3.

“That’s another way to make sure we have a place in the living room.”

8:20 am: Walt: Where do things stand with the competition with Xbox?

Hirai: We have a much larger install base in Japan. We were neck and neck in Europe.

In the U.S., though, Xbox has a larger install base.

Hirai says they expect a 10-year lifespan for the PS3, and see it eventually having a greater install base than any console.

8:21 am: What about the impact on handheld gaming of Apple and smartphone apps? How much of a challenge is that to the traditional structure of gaming?

Hirai: Whether we are talking about iPods, iPads or any Android, they’ve had an impact on the traditional videogame business, no question about it.

Not all negative impact, though. It has also introduced new customers to gaming.

Hirai notes that Sony is bringing PlayStation games to Android, and is now opening it up to some other PlayStation developers.

As much as those casual games are fun to play, they’re not the same as a dedicated player like Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation Vita portable videogame device. It’s coming to Japan in December, and to the rest of the world early next year, Hirai said.

It’s optimized for gaming with physical buttons, Hirai said, and allows for input on the back. It can also play HD movies and do other things.

Walt tries putting it in his pocket. Hirai quips that Walt has a stash of devices backstage. “They should have a metal detector.”

It has a 3G card for cellular connectivity (for data). In the U.S., it will cost $299 for the 3G model and $249 for the Wi-Fi-only model.

Walt: Who is the target market?

Hirai: Same people who have bought PSP and PlayStation 3, as well as those who have gotten into gaming from phones and tablets and iPod touch devices.

“If we can convert even a small percentage of those players … then we have also gained.”

8:31 am: Hirai notes that the company just started preorders in Japan, and there were people lining up at stores just to order one.

8:31 am: On to phones — is Sony interested in buying out Ericsson in its Sony Ericsson joint venture?

Hirai: I’m not going to comment on the speculation. After April, when Sony made its latest reorganization, one of the things I’ve done with Sony’s CEO and Sony Ericsson’s CEO is recognize that Sony Ericsson is an important part of Sony’s overall strategy, and that the two are in lockstep, whether it is a joint venture or not. That’s one of the things we are embarking on.

“Those are the kinds of things we need to work on to make sure it is a seamless experience.”

8:38 am: Why did you sell your camera sensors to Apple?

Hirai: Can you really define who your competitors are, these days?

We sell to Apple. We buy from Samsung. We sell to Samsung.

8:42 am: Walt: You are not in the top tier of smartphones.

Hirai: In certain regions, you are right.

Walt: So, are you going to buy out Ericsson in the cellphone space?

Again, Hirai says he won’t comment on speculation. The most important thing is that we are able to work a lot closer with the folks at Sony Ericsson.

Hirai is now showing Sony’s clamshell Android tablet — the Tablet P. Walt notes that when you open it up, you have a tablet with a big black bar in the middle.

Sony also has the slate-shaped Tablet S, which acts as a remote control, and which is already on sale in most markets.

8:48 am: Q&A: What is Sony doing to reinvigorate the videogame business?

Hirai notes that this question comes up every time the industry is in midcycle, and there are lots of sequels.

When we launch PlayStation Vita, we will have new titles.

Next question is on why there are only three PlayStation-certified Android devices — the Xperia Play phone and Sony’s two tablets. Will this expand to non-Sony devices?

Hirai: This is not a case where we want to keep it in the Sony family. We are in discussions with non-Sony makers. We’ll make the announcements as the time comes to go public. “This is not just for Sony devices.”

8:52 am: On cameras, Hirai said that there are continued innovations coming in the point-and-shoot business, despite the rise of camera phones.

“Stay tuned.”

Walt: Are you actually optimistic about that business?

Hirai: “It’s not a growing business. I get that. The numbers speak for themselves.”

8:54 am: Last question, from Joanna Stern of the Verge. What are Sony’s plans to make all the devices work better together? Where are you guys going with that? It seems like that is a software challenge — an area where you have struggled.

Hirai: The point you made is a very good one. He notes there is a new group looking at cross-device strategy, particularly among networked devices.

“I don’t know about clock radios.”

Unfortunately, because this is a hardware business, I’d like to think we can change everything overnight, but we can’t.

Kazuo Hirai Session Photos

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