Sony once held some of the most valuable brand names in tech. The company practically invented the portable music player, the legendary Walkman. Also, its first digital camera came out in 1996, the Cyber-shot. However, the company didn’t handle the transition to mobile phones very well.
The company – or rather its 50/50 partnership with Ericsson – did try to adapt the Sony branding to mobile phones. This gave us handsets like the Sony Ericsson W800, which had “Walkman” written with large letters on its side.
Not just that, it had a button with Walkman logo that launched the music player, which could handle MP3 and AAC files. This was still considered an impressive feat when the phone came out in 2005. It wasn’t the only music-focused phone of that year, however. The Motorola ROKR E1, the iTunes phone, was its chief rival.
Comparing the two is interesting as it shows a difference in approach. Sony (Ericsson) gave you a 512MB Memory Stick card, a USB cable and Disc2Phone software. You buy your music from the store, rip it and transfer it to the phone.
In contrast, the Motorola expected you to load tracks from your iTunes collection – the iTunes Store opened its virtual doors a couple of years prior and supported the iPod. The iPod did for digital music what the Walkman did for the cassette tape.
As a big name in audio hardware and owner of Sony Music (actually a 50/50 partner in Sony BMG in 2005), the Japanese giant was perfectly positioned to capture the mobile music market. Walkman phones were half of the equation, an online music store would have been the other half, but that never materialized. And ripping CDs and transferring the songs to your phone was always going to lose to digital downloads.
With no cap on how many songs you could load on the phone, the W800 had a clear advantage over the Motorola (the ROKR E1 was limited to 500 tracks). The 512MB that came in the box could fit a lot of music, but you could go wild and get a 2GB Memory Stick – that’s over 700 songs on average (assuming 128Kbps files, which isn’t unreasonable for the time). It lacked stereo speakers, though, and no standard audio jack (the Moto had a 2.5mm jack).
We’ll also look at the Sony Ericsson K750 today. Actually, this is essentially the same phone – the biggest difference between the two is the branding. Instead of focusing on music, the K750 was a cameraphone.
It featured the same 2MP camera module with a slightly different setup on the back. It had a sliding cover that protected the lens and automatically launched the camera app when you slid it out of the way (the W800 had a smaller lens cover, activated with a switch on the back).
The whole thing was designed to look like a Sony digital camera, though we couldn’t tell you why the company missed the opportunity to use the Cyber-shot branding – that would come with the successor, the K800.
You only got a 64MP Memory Stick with this phone and the button above the joystick opened the multitasking menu rather than the music player. The phone did support MP3 and AAC, just like the W800. Both had a camera shutter key on the side.
Why did Sony Ericsson release two nearly identical phones? Clearly, it was a marketing play – the W800 appealed to Walkman owners, the K750 to those using Cyber-shot cameras (the lack of branding might have hurt it a bit, though).
You would think that it would have been better to create one super phone – Cyber-shot camera, Walkman music player, Trinitron display perhaps. Even Sony itself seems to agree.
The latest Xperia 1 was absolutely stuffed with Sony brand names, looking at press materials you’ll spot everything from the consumer-facing Bravia brand to professional brands like Master reference monitors and Alpha cameras.
But we were talking about the Sony Ericsson W800, K750 and the value of branding. Sony Ericsson’s 2005 Q4 report calls the Walkman-branded phones “the highlight” of the year and says the company shipped 3 million units. This includes the high end W900 with 3G connectivity, so it’s not just the W800. The K750 isn’t even mentioned in the report.
And yet, both phones went on to become best-sellers with about 15 million sold during their lifetime. It seems that branding isn’t everything in the long run.