(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
TOKYO — Just when you thought Sony couldn't get any more pathetic, the company comes up with the "SmartWig."
Just because your gizmo designers make a hairpiece that aims to help its wearer navigate roads, check blood pressure, flip through slides in a presentation or perhaps even take photos doesn't mean a company should admit it, never mind seek a U.S. patent. I can see the marketing slogan now: "The high-tech wig that will make you wish you were bald!"
If this is just a ruse for some bored Sony staffers to win an Ig Nobel Prize, then fine. This American parody of the Nobel Prizes, which honors 10 odd and trivial advances annually that do more to inspire laughter than serve humankind, is quite a phenomenon in Japan. Winners, like the Japanese researchers honored this year for using mice to study how opera affects heart-transplant patients, often become local celebrities.
But Sony seems too serious for comfort about its high-tech toupee. While a spokeswoman told Bloomberg News that Sony hasn't decided whether to commercialize this new technology, such publicity is often a trial balloon to see what the marketplace thinks. Analysts didn't miss a beat, instantly framing the wig as Sony's less-than-impressive answer to its competitors' wearable-technology products — from Google's eyeglasses, to Samsung's smart watches and Apple's, well, everything.
This is no time for Sony to be dropping hints about a product that inspires only eye-rolling. The mockery is but the latest reminder that Kazuo Hirai may have been a bad choice to restore Sony to relevance.
It's easy to forget there was elation when Hirai replaced Howard Stringer in April 2012. Whereas Stringer, Sony's first non-Japanese leader, was a businessman brought in to trim fat and shake up Sony's insular culture, Hirai was a gadget man: a bone fide star in the tech community.
The real problem isn't Hirai. It's that Sony died years ago. The company goes through the motions and churns out new music players, flat-screen televisions, smartphones, video-game players, but who cares? With each ho-hum product, Sony makes us nostalgic for the powerhouse that changed the world with the Walkman. It's been 12 years since Steve Jobs ushered in a new revolution with Apple's iPod, and Sony still hasn't come out with a globally-viable competitor, never mind a rival to the iPhone or iPad. The remarkable thing is that Sony has what Apple sorely lacks: vast libraries of content, both music and films. And still Sony let Samsung, too, steal away its franchise. Its credit rating is spiraling toward junk.
What Sony and many investors don't get is that it's no longer an electronics company. Hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb of New York-based Third Point somehow missed that fact in May when he called on Sony to dump large chunks of its entertainment business and focus on electronics. Sony should be doing the opposite. It is to electronics what Microsoft is to the computer industry: a pulseless shell of its once-dynamic self.
All this explains why word of the SmartWig is such a buzz killer, not to mention potentially creepy. Japanese police are busy enough now chasing middle-age men sneaking naughty photos of schoolgirls. Yeah, a hairpiece camera will REALLY help that effort.
The bigger issue is what this says about Sony's mindset. Sony needs to wow us all over again — to shock the world with a game-changer that has the folks at Apple, Samsung and Wired magazine huddled around TVs (not Sony's, of course) taking in breathless news reports about its next revolutionary idea. Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but all SmartWig may do is win an Ig Nobel.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.