BARCELONA, Spain — At Mobile World Congress on Monday, Sony unveiled a trio of smartphones as part of its new X series, which focus on the core smartphone features customers are most concerned about: camera, battery life and design. After the announcement, Jun Makino, senior product manager at Sony Mobile, told International Business Times that the next 12 months will be crucial for the company’s smartphone division.
“[In] 2016, we obviously need to deliver profit, and that is something the company is committed to,” Makino says. Key to that success could be a range of new accessories, like the just-announced Xperia Ear, which promises an always-on, voice-activated digital assistant in your ear.
Sony already has a major presence in the burgeoning VR industry with its PlayStation VR headset due to launch later this year, taking on Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive headsets.
According to a patent filed by Sony last year, the company may be developing a pair of VR headsets: One appears to be similar to the Gear VR, while the other is closer to a standard pair of glasses to which the smartphone would be attached. The patent says the two devices would feature sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes as well as onboard processors and memory, meaning they would be much more than Google’s simple Cardboard model.
However, a Sony spokesperson denied the company is developing a VR system for smartphones.
VR is a huge buzzword at Mobile World Congress this week, with Samsung making a big deal about its Gear VR device at the launch of the Galaxy S7 on Sunday. Facebook has partnered with Samsung through its Oculus division to create the Gear VR headset and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave the product a major boost during the press conference when he appeared on stage, calling Gear VR “the best mobile VR experience.”
Sony’s smartphone business has been decline for some time, and in 2015 the company dropped out of the list of the top 10 smartphone manufacturers in the world. The Japanese company has been unable to compete at the premium end of the market with Apple and Samsung, while Chinese companies have been dominating the budget end.
Sony’s new Xperia X smartphone was described as the company’s new “hero product” by Makino, though he would not confirm if the Xperia Z range -- which has been the company’s flagship range for the last four years -- would be replaced or sit alongside the new devices.
“We are optimizing our portfolio, carefully listening to the different market requirements and getting the smartphone range that really meets those consumer needs,” Makino said of the change of strategy.
What to make of the fact that none of the X series of smartphones will go on sale before the summer? “It is a sign of weakness Sony has to pre-announce flagship phones months ahead of availability,” Ian Fodd, mobile analyst with IHS, said following the announcement.
The Xperia X focuses on getting the core components right, including the camera, which has a predictive autofocus system, and the battery, which has a much longer lifespan thanks to a new analysis system that alters the charging mode depending on environmental conditions.
However, despite the changes, it's hard to see how Sony’s new portfolio will change its fortunes dramatically. Forrester analyst Thomas Husson says Sony’s new smartphones may not help the company in its attempt to stop losing market share. “The only interesting bit [among the MWC announcements] was the new earbud device,” Husson said.
“Sony’s Xperia Ear offers a glimpse into the future when consumers will be able to access virtual assistants powered by artificial intelligence. That said, Sony won’t be able to leverage this innovation because it lacks differentiation in the Android world,” the analyst said.
Correction, 11:30 a.m. EST, Feb. 22, 2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that Sony is developing a VR system for smartphones.