Internet TV: Why Sony may have finally gotten it right

Patrick Houston is senior VP for media and chief publisher of NetShelter Technology Media. (Disclosure: NetShelter is a business partner of VentureBeat.)

Sony Corp. CEO Sir Howard Stringer is a funny guy. His press conferences are often punctuated with gaffaws. I had a chance to ask him a question just before a press briefing about Sony’s alliance with Google to create an Android-OS Internet TV and set-top-box. Hmmm, I said, what does the deal with Google mean for Sony’s other longstanding partnerships, say, with Microsoft? And in typical fashion, Sir Howard responded with a quip.

“You know, the way things operate anymore it’s like jumping into a Viking boat,” he said. “You never know whether you’ll be handed an oar or an axe, and most days I feel like I’m being given the axe.”

I hope I got the metaphor right. I’m sure I got his drift, though, because Stringer said time and again during his 50-minute session with a small group of journalists that the deal typified how it’s increasing hard to tell friend from foe. Things weren’t always that way in Sony’s old world of consumer electronics. And Stringer admitted to missing the good old pre-coopitition days.

These days, Stringer has no choice to but to get in bed with Google and Microsoft – especially if it’s going to protect Sony’s flanks from anymore assaults on core businesses from the likes of Apple. What’s more, a TV just can’t be a TV anymore. Like a PC that can also be a TV or a smartphone that’s a computer, the TV has to also be a PC.

There have been lots of efforts to bring the Web to your TV. But no one’s gotten it quite right – not yet anyway. The calculus for the future of TV is straightforward: It’s not enough just to connect the TV to the Internet. It’s not enough to provide a TV-centric browser. For the TV to stake its rightful claim as the computer for everyone’s living room, it needs the same three things that fueled the PC revolution then and the smartphone revolution now: Apps, apps, and more apps.

So never mind if it’s swinging an axe or rowing, Google may be the best hope to realize Internet TV. It may be Sony’s best hope, too. Google holds the key to enabling that living room revolution with its swelling ranks of app developers, whether they’re creating those apps for phones, tablets, netbooks or, now, TVs.

Then again, Sony brings something to the partnership that could make it more potent – and not the TVs. Stringer has put the finishing touches on a “calculated” – his word — management change at Sony’s Tokyo TV group by turning its reins over to a group of managers who previously managed Sony’s VAIO PC, PlayStation, networking, and mobile groups. They don’t just get TVs. They get processors, operating systems, and applications. Plus, they bring a “much more combative” computer industry mentality to the once, but no longer, staid world of consumer electronics.

The cultural revolution is also unfolding at San Diego-based Sony Electronics Corp., which makes TVs, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and more for the U.S. market. Just two weeks ago, Sony named Mike Abary, who spent 10 with the VAIO group, as the senior VP of its Sony Electronics Home Division, which includes its American TV-manufacturing operation.

As a result, Stringer wasn’t the only guy in room alight with hope about Sony’s prospects for capitalizing on its lead in the race to bring a real Internet TV to market. Even some of my usually hardboiled cohorts in the press corps weren’t strutting their characteristic skepticism as they departed Stringer’s briefing. “It’s nice to see,” one of them said to me on the way out, “that Sony may have finally gotten something right.”

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