Why Sony’s PDAs Failed in the U.S., but Not in Japan

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Sony recently announced that it will exit the PDA marketplace in the United States. Analysts and tech writers who don’t look any further simply see a BIG electronics player leaving, and immediately start predicting the death of the Palm OS platform and PDAs, in favor of smartphones.

First of all, as Brighthand Editor-In-Chief Ed Hardy pointed out recently, smartphones ARE PDAs, but they also have a phone in them. There isn’t really any need for the distinction.

But let’s dig a little deeper into Sony’s failure.

The original Pilot (the second version was called “Palm Pilot”) and all of the Palm OS PDAs released in the early days were incredibly successful because their creator, Jeff Hawkins, had a vision of a simple yet powerful electronic organizer. This is what truly created the market segment that Apple had hoped to create with its failed Newton. Apple tried to put everything into a sub-notebook and, depending on how you look at it, they created an under-powered laptop or an over-sized PDA. In either case, it was a failure. Apple simply didn’t understand the market they were going after.

Sony’s design flaws, and ultimate failure, also came from a misunderstanding of its target audience, as well as poor design. But size wasn’t the problem, rather it was usability by the American consumer.

The typical Japanese electronics buyer (of cameras, camcorders, PDAs, etc.) reads the manual in order to understand everything they can about their devices. I am told (though I have never seen it myself) that it’s not unusual to see people wearing a PDA on a lanyard around their neck in Japan. They love their technology and have no problem spending all the necessary time it takes to learn how to use it well. Americans love technology too but expect it to be powerful AND intuitive, and we don’t want to have to read the darn manual.

Unquestionably, Sony engineers are brilliant; they can make things smaller than anyone on the planet. They can rewrite software to do amazing things on a PDA. They were first to market with lots of PDA enhancements. But they didn’t take the time to make their enhancements intuitive and thus non-manual-reading Americans thought their device was too complicated or worse, broken.

Sony failed with Clies in the U.S. because its devices had numerous small software controls with cryptic icons, buried settings with vast numbers of mystifying variables to set up things like Wi-Fi, and unnecessarily complicated looking screens. Apparently for the Japanese consumer, a complicated-looking Applications screen suggests that the device is cool and powerful. In America, the same screen is seen as too complicated and confusing, and if it requires a manual to figure it out, it’s going back to the store.

There’s even proof of this inside every Clie box lid. Sony prints the message, “If your product is not working properly, DO NOT RETURN IT TO THE STORE…” then it tells you how to get tech support via a toll-free number or web address. The box lid message finishes with, “For U.S. customers only.”

Over the last couple of months Sony America seemed to be trying to further fix its problem with a test program of giving away a free training DVD to every Clie buyer. It was designed to simplify Clies and reduce the return rate. While the program met with initial success and was being expanded, Sony HQ cut the Clie/US cord. (I know about this because I was the featured trainer on the DVD.)

In the end, the problem wasn’t with the Palm OS or PDAs in general, the problem was that the Japanese engineers were never asked by management to Americanize their PDA efforts, just to build feature-packed PDAs. Sony then required the American consumer to figure things out via the manual. By itself that doesn’t always doom a product line to failure, but in this case there was a simpler-to-use, equally powerful option from palmOne. Americans didn’t put up with having to read a manual, they just returned their Clies and bought palmOne handhelds.

LARRY BECKER is the author of The Palm Business Book. He runs a successful handheld training company called PDA Planning.

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