In the bloody, lawless gang-brawl that is the modern smartphone market, Google’s Android operating system is quickly becoming the weapon of choice. While Apple continues to hoard the vast majority of profit in the mobile world, dozens of other companies have resorted to Google’s free software in order to build Android-powered competitors. And even though Android is plagued by fragmentation issues – a new version seems to come out every other week – and nobody appears to be making much money with it, the operating system now constitutes the fastest-growing segment of the smartphone industry.
Of the myriad companies betting billions on Android, Sony is one of the most interesting. Unlike many of its competitors, the sprawling company has built a reputation for being a premium brand – or, in other words, slapping a Sony logo on a TV suddenly adds a couple grand to the price tag. But in recent years, the company has had a very hard time recreating that aura of high-priced exclusivity in the fast-growing mobile device market.
Now, with a brand new smartphone, it’s trying again.
Sony’s Xperia S smartphone ($100 with a contract, $500 without) went on sale this week at Sony Stores. For the past few days, we’ve been playing around with the phone. The short verdict? It boasts an amazing screen, and is certainly worth buying if you’re primarily looking to watch video.
But Sony doesn’t just want you to buy this phone, they want it to be a gateway drug of a product, enticing you to start buying other entertainment hardware and software from the same source – much like Apple has done with the iPhone, iTunes and other products. That, however, is going to be a much tougher sell.
For the past couple of years, Sony has been trying to leverage the company’s massive store of music, movies and hardware in a way that entices customers to spend all their entertainment dollars in one place. That means building TVs with online movie rental stores that access Sony’s movie library, or cloud-based media that users can watch on their phone, laptop, desktop or TV. The company’s gaming division, for example, has done this sort of thing extremely well, mostly by letting players seamlessly run games on the Playstation console and the mobile PS Vita.
The Xperia is a cog in this wheel. It’s designed specifically to work best when synced up with a Sony TV or computer (or even a prototype Sony wristwatch). Who’s going to go out and by a $5,000 Sony TV because they have a $500 Sony phone? Nobody. But somebody who already has the TV might want to buy the phone.
The Xperia comes pre-loaded with Sony’s Music and Video Unlimited services. These are basically online rental stores that let you access Sony’s huge piles of content for a monthly fee. It’s cloud-based, so you can watch or listen to your rentals on just about every Web-connected device you own.
Both the music and video services cost money, but you can try them out for “free.” I tried getting a free one-month trial account, but immediately stopped when the site asked for a credit card number and informed me I would be charged the regular amount automatically at the end of the month if I didn’t cancel the trial account before then.
(Let’s be clear about why companies do this: so that when your free trial runs out and you forget to cancel the account, they can start charging you for the full service. It’s a furiously underhanded way of getting money out of consumers’ pockets. Sony is by no means the only tech company that does this sort of thing, but that doesn’t make it right).
Getting media on the phone is straightforward. You simply plug the phone in to your computer and drag and drop various movies and songs into the folders on the device. It’s not as good as Motorola’s software, which lets you copy playlists from iTunes, but at least it doesn’t require you to install all kinds of third-party software to get your own files on your own phone.
The Xperia’s music player is perhaps the best media app on the phone. It’s incredibly easy to use, and lets you create playlists on the fly. When a song is playing, a little infinity symbol appears on the screen. Clicking the symbol lets you quickly look up lyrics, band info and music videos on-line.