Japan’s top tech firms have been aggressively marketing all manner of gadgets and gizmos at Las Vegas this week, including 4K OLED TVs, funky new display tech and water-proof smartphones, but their upbeat mood does little to mask the growing problems each of them are facing.
Last year saw the stock market value of Japan’s ‘big three’ plunge to their lowest level in 30 years in the face of enormous losses.
Such is their plight that Sharp has publicly admitted its existence is at stake, while Panasonic has come out and said that it’s expecting further losses of around $6 billion this year. Only Sony is predicting that it will finally get its act together, banking on the success of its Ultra-High Definition TVs to pull it out of the mire.
Japan’s biggest tech firms have been beset by all manner of woes in recent months, including an unofficial boycott of their goods in China, a strong yen and stiff competition from Korean rivals Samsung and LG. Therefore, it’s fair to say that Sony, Panasonic and Sharp have a lot more riding on how their new gadgets will be perceived than anyone else.
Out of Japan’s big three tech firms, it’s Sharp that appears to be most under threat, yet it’s come out all guns blazing with its new IGZO display technology that it hopes may just signal a change in its fortunes.
The advantage of IGZO – which is a composite of indium, gallium, zinc and oxide – is that it’s far more energy efficient than competing display technologies, as the compound emits more light than traditional screens. According to Sharp, such a display can offer as much as 80% to 90% more energy efficiency compared to older tech, with the added bonus that even after it’s been switched off it continues to display an image.
But this innovation will count for nothing if Sharp cannot persuade manufacturers to adopt its new technology. The company has by itself produced a smartphone and a tablet device that offer three times more battery life than regular devices, but the fact remains – who the hell wants to buy a Sharp phone in the first place? The only products using its display tech that are even remotely popular are its TVs, but sales from these devices alone are unlikely to turn things around.
The outlook for Panasonic is slightly more optimistic following a massive restructuring of the company that will lead to a significant change in direction. At CES, Panasonic’s presentation largely focused on its Viera Smart TVs and the new functionality of its Smart TV platform.
This includes new ‘tailored’ home screens and built in cameras that can recognize individual users so the TV knows whose home screen to display when it’s switched on. As for the home screen itself, this is now much better organized, displaying all of a user’s favorite TV shows, websites and other content.
Panasonic has also made some other tweaks, making YouTube content more accessible and adding more functionality for smartphones.
Considering what’s at stake, this might seem a pretty disappointing effort by Panasonic, if that’s the best they can come up with. But in actual fact, the company’s lack of innovation illustrates the change of direction it’s making, as it begins focusing on smaller gadgets like car entertainment systems and batteries, LED lightbulbs and solar panels.
It remains to be seen how this new strategy will pan out, with Panasonic relying heavily on its brand name to successfully drive its push into new markets.
Sony is by far and away the most confident of Japan’s tech firms, if CES is anything to go by, with its new TVs and smartphones a clear indication that the company continues to pin its hopes on high-end consumer tech.
Unfortunately, Sony’s presentation was a bit of a balls up – during the grand unveiling of its widely touted 4K OLED TV, the display suddenly switched off only to flash back on with a Windows “blue screen” error – much to the amusement of the watching audience.
But aside from that minor disaster, which CEO Kazuo Hirai good naturedly laughed off, Sony’s presentation was a highly polished one. It’s OLED TV was every bit as vibrant and delicious as you would expect, while its latest Xperia Z smartphone looks like a worthy challenger to Samsung’s Galaxy SIII – with added features such as being able to take it into the bath (it’s totally waterproof) and the adoption of photo tech developed by its digital camera people.
Sony is also going all out with its 4K TVs, rolling out a range of new devices to support this new standard, including a new “distribution service” that promises to deliver much more 4K content than is currently available, camcorders and media players.
Of the three, Sony looks to be the safest bet to recover soonest, but much will depend on how consumers’ receive their products. As we know all too well from history, getting a good reception at CES is one thing, but convincing consumers of the same thing can be quite another.