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A man walks past an advertisement for Sony Walkmans at an electronic shop in Tokyo May 5, 2011. Sony, despite its iconic brand, remains out of step with the rest of the global technology world and its talent for crowd-pleasing innovation has largely evaporated. (KIM KYUNG-HOON/REUTERS)
A man walks past an advertisement for Sony Walkmans at an electronic shop in Tokyo May 5, 2011. Sony, despite its iconic brand, remains out of step with the rest of the global technology world and its talent for crowd-pleasing innovation has largely evaporated. (KIM KYUNG-HOON/REUTERS)

SPECIAL REPORT

Sony stumbles: Did Stringer's makeover fail? Add to ...

"I would be very focused on a narrow set of products," advises the CEO of web security company Symantec, Enrique Salem, also speaking at the Reuters Summit. "If you look at what happened at Sony over the last 15 years, they've diversified their portfolio and I would pick one or two things I wanted to spend all of my time on to make sure they are the very best in the market."

Another of Sony's options may be to seek closer cooperation with U.S. Internet giant Google.

Sony is already warming to Google's Android operating system - notably partnering with the Internet search leader on Google TV. The U.S. company could help tie together the Japanese company's treasure trove of content and products with Google's software and innovation - if that were to happen, industry watchers argue, Sony could then hope to take on Apple.

"It is now moving in the right direction but does not have the luxury of time that it had 10 years back," said CLSA's Goyal.

Whoever ends up running Japan's best known consumer electronics brand for the next 10 years should look to give its best people the space and flexibility to work and think freely, Apple co-founder Wozniak said.

"It's kind of like the liberal arts side of the company. The emotion, the heart has to be as strong as the brain and the engineering. Right now that doesn't really happen. Companies are all based on the money guys and who has done what before," he said.

STRINGER LEGACY

For Stringer, the legacy he leaves may be that of the cost-cutter rather than the renaissance man he promised to be when he became the first foreigner to lead the Japanese company.

With Morita, Stringer shares a colorful past. Morita was the son of a soy sauce maker and a former Imperial army soldier. Stringer too served in the military, conscripted to fight in Vietnam after he arrived in the United States in 1964 with $100 he had earned as a truck driver after graduating from Oxford University.

Landing a job as a journalist at CBS after his discharge, he eventually went on to run the American broadcaster. He was knighted in 2000, an award he shares with Morita who was made an honorary knight in 1993.

Stringer, who is described on the company website as less of a numbers' guy than a creative leader, has had successes such as the Blu-ray optical discs victory over the alternative format HD-DVD. However, Sony under his watch has yet to find the game-changer able to wow consumers like an iPhone or an iPad.

Unlike Morita, remembered as the creative force behind the Walkman, Trinitron televisions and other hits that made his company a household name, or hands-on innovator Jobs, Stringer has been happy to let others show off the goods.

Jobs, a consummate salesman has personally launched Apple's most successful products over the past decade. Stringer on the other hand was not present at the launch of either of Sony's most important products of recent years, its new hand-held game device and the tablet computers it hopes can claim top spot behind Apple's iPad.

In the absence of any must-have gadget emerging from Sony's labs, Stringer has not been squeamish about cutting fat to lift the company's bottom line, a strategy that has delivered results for him throughout his career from CBS onwards.

"Stringer cut fixed costs especially for production sites, making Sony more resilient to stagnant revenue growth," said Yasuo Nakane, an analyst at Deutsche Securities in Tokyo. It has allowed him to keep pace with productivity improvements at rivals such as LG and Samsung.

Before taking over as CEO, Stringer had burnished his belt-tightening reputation by cutting $700-million in expenses at Sony's U.S. operations. More recently, in 2009, as Sony struggled during the post Lehman shock recession, he pared $3-billion more off Sony's costs by laying off 16,000 workers and halving the number of suppliers it uses to 1,200 companies.

Prudent management, however, isn't enough to lift the despair that has descended not just on Sony but on some other major companies in deflation-ravaged Japan since the bubble burst two decades ago.

In its May edition, Japan's Bungei Shunju, a widely read current affairs magazine, lamented the demise of Sony in a piece quoting an engineer who had left for a rival consumer electronics firm.

"It's obvious the days will never again come when we marveled at the quality of sound from a Sony FM radio, or the beauty of the images on a Trinitron TV, or the inspiration of the Walkman," the magazine said. "We shouldn't expect Sony to shine as it once did."

Pondering Sony's future again over his dumplings in Tokyo, Airboard creator Maeda is equally as glum. "I don't think Sony can change," he says. Not unless, he adds, "Sony has a leader like Steve Jobs."

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