Sony VAIO's fatal flaw: The PCs cost too damned much

Sony VAIO's fatal flaw: The PCs cost too damned much

Focusing on the high-end only works if there's a high-end market to begin with.

Sony VAIO Tap 11 hybrid

Sony VAIO Tap 11 hybrid

Sony's floundering PC business is no more, sold to a group of investors that plan to pull the once-vaunted VAIO brand back within Japan's borders.

The sudden death is shocking, sure, but mourn not this loss, fellow PC faithful. Sony's computers have long stood out from the crowd, slickly designed and clad in colorful cases, yet the VAIO line has struggled to capture everyday attention in recent times, accounting for a scant 1.9 percent of all PC sales in the third quarter of 2013.

Why? It'd be easy to point a finger a Sony's design decisions. Most of the VAIO offerings announced in the past couple of years have been hybrids of one sort or another, as Sony--like its competitors--grappled to compensate for the sudden rise of tablets and the sudden shrinking of the PC market. Hybrids, whether of the laptop/tablet or (ridiculous) tablet/all-in-one form, have thus far failed to get everyday buyers drooling.

Likewise, you could point to the contracting PC market, paired with its notoriously slim profit margins. It's getting hard to make a buck as a PC maker these days! Sony's 18-year history in the PC business suggests that VAIO's biggest problem may have been just the opposite, however.

Yes, VAIO PCs were often sleek multimedia powerhouses riding the cutting edge of innovation. Case in point: The VAIO logo itself was designed to represent the change from analog to digital, with the V and A representing analog waveforms, and the I and O miming binary digits. But that high-end focus came at a literal cost.

More than anything else, the VAIO line's greatest legacy--and perhaps its fatal flaw--may be that they were so damned expensive.

Amazing(ly pricey) laptops

Glancing through the PCWorld review archives revealed a blatant trend.

From 2008: The Sony VAIO VGN-Z598U "is compelling and yet with all the extras it costs as much as a used car."

From 2009: "The supersexy, slim VAIO X has netbook dimensions, decent specs, and a serious [$1,300] price tag." And as for Sony's more affordable netbook, the VAIO W series? "This model doesn't bring the price down enough considering what's included in its $500 asking price."

The song continued in 2010: "The Sony VAIO VPCY218FX is light, compact, and very stylish--but it's a bit pricey for the performance it delivers." And 2011: "The VAIO Y-series strikes a good middle ground between netbook and ultraportable, but for this performance and feature set we'd expect to pay less." Sometimes VAIO pricing was so shocking that the sticker cost consumed review headlines, like in Sony's VAIO F Series VPCF13AFX: Pricey Performance and the blunt Sony VAIO VPCJ114FX/B: Wait for the Price to Drop.

The same underlying thread repeated itself over and over and over again. VAIO PCs offered an intriguing blend of design and oomph--the blend wasn't intriguing enough to justify the prices Sony asked for, especially considering VAIO's tendency for slight underperformance.

Meanwhile, customer satisfaction with Sony PCs plummeted in recent years, delivering next-to-last ratings in PCWorld's 2012 reader satisfaction survey. High costs create high expectations, and it was clear Sony wasn't meeting those, for whatever reason.

Not meeting market demand

Former PCWorlder Darren Gladstone hit the crux of the issue on the head all the way back in 2008, in his review of the $1,500-and-up Sony VAIO VGN-Z598U. "Everyone talks about the Apple tax - the premium you're paying for an Apple product. The same could technically be said for some of Sony's more uniquely designed notebooks."

Sony was never able to generate the same buzz for its PCs that Apple built around the Mac, however. Apple's slim notebooks have accounted for roughly 90 percent of all $1,000-plus laptop sales for years now--the very market Sony specialized in--while PC makers who jumped on the MacBook-miming Ultrabook bandwagon early are scrambling back after finding that few Windows buyers are willing to spend that much on a laptop. Sony itself only shipped 1.5 million PCs total in the third quarter of 2013, according to IDC.

With the overall computer industry shrinking, the average selling price of Windows PCs hovering under $500, sales of low-cost tablets surging, and the high-end PC market absolutely cornered by Apple despite the Ultrabook push, it's easy to see why Sony threw in the towel on the premium--but long unprofitable--VAIO brand to focus on booming mobile technology. Differentiation just didn't pay off for Sony in the long run.

As I said: Mourn not for this loss, fellow PC faithful. You weren't buying VAIOs anyway.

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