Yet after a massive voluntary recall of laptop batteries, Stringer turned opportunist, using the smoking cells as cover to clear out the vestiges of Sony's change-resistant culture. In Stringervision, the new Sony is led by software and linked horizontally across its vast product line. No more will the folks in the camera group not know what the TV-set guys are doing, he vows. He named a new boss of the consumer-electronics unit, Katsumi Ihara, to see to that. Software design is getting an overhaul too, so movies, MP3 players, TVs and cameras aren't strangers. The shining example is PlayStation 3, the fully loaded game machine that debuts in the North American market Nov. 17. "We've put a young guy in charge of the technology group to develop core software and media technologies, which we have not been good at," Stringer told TIME last week. Likewise, the components and semiconductor divisions have a new boss. And a global product-safety officer will make sure a battery fiasco doesn't recur. Out of this crisis, Stringer promised, "we're going to come out stronger and better organized."
Although not immediately more profitable. In mid-October Sony revised forecasts for its 2007 fiscal year, which ends in March, predicting a 38% decline in net income, to about $435 million. The losses are partly owing to charges for the battery recall and delays in launching the highly complex PS3. For fiscal 2008, Stringer is still predicting a 5% rise in profit margins, though he admits he's not sure how he'll achieve it. "But I am not altering the profit target."
The big question is whether the PS3 is the herald of Stringer's revitalized company, or a techno-turkey that will drag down profits for years. Sony envisions PS3 as much more of an entertainment command center than a box to play video games. It features a ferociously fast computer chip, the Cell, a high-definition Blu-ray disc player, a hard drive and Web browser. In Sony's view, you'll use the PS3 to play games, watch movies and surf the Web. You'll be so dazzled by the hi-def images that you'll want to upgrade your TV with a new Bravia set that can display full 1080p resolution. Says Stringer of the PS3: "It's designed for the future as much as it is today."
It may be priced for the future too. In the U.S., Sony is charging $500 for the 20-gigabyte edition and $600 for the 60-GB box. (By comparison, the Xbox 360 costs $400 for a basic version and $500 for one with a hard drive; the Nintendo Wii console will debut two days after PS3 for about half the price.) Throw in a few PS3 games, at $60 a pop, and you're out $900a sum that may scare off consumers. And PS3 already frightens stock analysts. "We do not believe the machine provides incentives for buyers to buy a new machine ... except some game maniacs," Merrill Lynch analyst Hitoshi Kuriyama wrote in a recent report. Sony has already cut the price of the basic model 20% in Japan.
Sony is also launching a Ferrari when a Porsche (the 360) or Mazda (the Wii) may work fine for many families. Game publishers are increasingly going to multiplatform strategies for big titles, as production costs have soared and the market has splintered along geographic lines: Nintendo dominates Japan, Sony fares well in Europe and Microsoft racks up its strongest sales in North America. That means fewer must-have titles for one platform, an ominous sign for Sony with the priciest box on the shelves. Moreover, games such as Brain Age and Guitar Hero, which attract the mainstream audience, often don't require the most advanced hardwareit's their novelty, storytelling and fun factor that count.
At retail, Sony may soon find itself in a price war with Microsoft. Given its year head start, Microsoft could afford to cut prices on the 360 by up to $100 this spring. Xbox Live, the online service, has proved popular with gamersand Microsoft could be close to announcing movie downloads for it, a possible killer app. Sony has similar aspirations for its online offering, which is getting a major upgrade with the PS3, though for now it's playing catch-up.