Sony is still headquartered today in the same southern Tokyo neighborhood, Gotenyama, in which it started out. It was there that Sony took its first steps toward becoming a world-renowned consumer-electronics giant. Throughout its fifty-plus years, Sony has set a lot of firsts for Japanese corporations and for the advancement of technology by challenging conventional wisdom and capturing the imaginations of consumers around the world. Whether in electronics or services, Sony strives to create products that will make consumers around the world exclaim, "Ah, it's a Sony!"
The tiny radio repair shop Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, which later would become the Sony Corporation, emerged from the shadows of World War II. For decades before the war, family conglomerates dominated the Japanese business community, but the end of the war opened a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs such as Masaru Ibuka (1908–1997) and Akio Morita (1921–1999), Sony's cofounders. Sony's first breakthrough came in 1950 when it introduced the Tape-corder (tape recorder) to the world. The Tape-corder later spawned the famous Walkman, which launched with much fanfare in 1979. The Walkman revolutionized the way people listened to music. It no longer confined itself to homes: an early Walkman advertisement showed roller-skaters in the park with their headphones.
Sony's cofounders knew that the company's ultimate success would require reaching a global audience. On a trip to the U.S. in 1952, Ibuka discovered a device called the transistor, whch had been invented at Bell Laboratories. He and Morita had been toying with the idea of making a high-frequency radio and it seemed like the transistor could play a part in this. Purchasing the license for the transistor had its challenges. At the time, Bell did not believe that the technology could be useful for anything but hearing aids, and discouraged Ibuka and Morita from making a radio with the technology. At home, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MITI) doubted that such a small company could possibly undertake the enormous task of dealing with new foreign technologies and were opposed to the proposed purchase. Morita and Ibuka used all of their business and political connections through in-laws and former business associates and finally, six months later, convinced MITI to grant them a temporary permission. The transistorized radio made its debut in 1955, and in 1957, it put Sony on the global map as a maker of radios.
In September 1970 Sony became the first Japanese company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The listing made Sony a truly international company. It also symbolically affirmed that Sony was now an equal to industry giants such as General Motors, whose sales at the time exceeded the Japanese national budget. By 1977 Sony was listed on eighteen major exchanges in ten countries. Sony's global strategy is to think globally and act locally. On the one hand, Sony wanted the furthest reach for its business—the company has more than ninety-seven subsidiaries globally. On the other hand, it wanted to localize and adapt to local culture. This meant hiring local executives and setting up sales, distribution, production, and research and development operations all on the ground. This strategy sent a message to local consumers that Sony is part of their country and not simply a foreign investor there to make money.
Today, the digitization of the world—both in the way people live and the way consumers use electronics—has changed the consumer-electronics industry that Sony has long dominated. Rapid changes in technology and the advent of broadband have made it difficult for Sony to rest on the laurels it earned in the analog era. To counter formidable competition from all directions, Sony has broadened its business, adding to its portfolio a mobile-phone joint venture, a movie studio, a record label, and a video-game business. Finding the right synergies between its newly acquired businesses and its traditional electronics business has been a challenge for Sony, and one that has brought a few high-profile stumbles, such as the failings of the Sony Pictures Entertainment purchase in the late 1980s. But Sony is beginning to engage the new rules of business, working with companies that used to be sworn rivals as well as forcing different business groups within the global corporation to communicate and coordinate their business strategies better by, for example, involving the electronics division in product placement in Sony movies.
Sony Corporation of America. Genryu (A History of Sony). New York: Author, 1996.
Luh, Shu Shin. Business the Sony Way: Secrets of the World's Most Innovative Electronics Giant. Singapore: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.
Nathan, John. Sony: The Private Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Sony Corporation. "History." Available from http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/CorporateInfo/History/index.html.
Shu Shin Luh