Why Wasn’t the iPod a Sony brand?

In electronics, success is sometimes as much about the timing as it is about the tech.

In October 2001, Apple launched the iPod which was an instant success and sold over 220 million units over the next eight years. The iPod became the exemplar for a new entertainment category. Why was it Apple and not Sony that created the iPod?

Sony has always been the brand for portable personal music using clever compact vehicles. From the portable radios of the 50s to the Walkman introduced in the late seventies and beyond Sony, has been the innovative brand. The iPod was classic Sony. The answer is timing. Apple got the timing right by entering the market when the technology came together.

Of course, the Apple design flair, its brand, and its iTunes store were all important, but the timing was the key. Technology that was just emerging made the Apple iPod feasible. In particular, one enabling advance was an inexpensive, 1.8-inch hard drive from Toshiba that could hold over one thousand songs. Remarkably, Sony introduced not one but two iPod-like digital music players at the huge Las Vegas Comdex trade show in fall 1999, fully two years before the iPod appeared.

One, developed by the Sony Personal Audio Company, was the Memory Stick Walkman, which enabled users to store music files in Sony’s memory stick, a device that resembled a large pack of gum. The other, developed by the VAIO computer group, was the VAIO Music Clip, which also stored music in memory and resembled a stubby fountain pen. Both failed in large part because the technology was not yet ready. Each had 64 megabytes of memory that stored only twenty or so songs, and each was priced too high for the general market.

The timing was not the only problem. Not only did the two offerings confuse the market, but the lack of cooperation of Sony Music which was more concerned with avoiding piracy than with the success of the new digital product also were factors. But the timing was pivotal. Timing is a factor in most efforts to create new categories or subcategories especially in the high tech space as the research for my book Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant showed.

In fact, Apple had its own premature products. One was the Newton, a personal digital assistant introduced in 1993, designed to manage schedules and lists using a human writing recognition system. Despite terrific introductory marketing, the product failed because it was priced high, was both unreliable and sluggish, and had a hard-to-read screen.

“Timing is a factor in most efforts to create new categories or subcategories especially in the high tech space.”

In 1996, Palm, with more advanced technology and a less ambitious product vision, came out with the PalmPilot, a simpler PDA that was a resounding success. An implication is that a firm needs to be close to technology and be capable of determining exactly when advances needed to support a product concept will emerge. That involves people who are conversant with the technology and are following it through various channels, a system to collect and analyze the intelligence that emerges, and a decision process that encourages action.

Another route is to be engaged in the technology so that its progress is not only monitored but influenced. Samsung’s engagement in semiconductor development and manufacture has led to new product enhancements in its consumer electronics and cell phone products.


The best concept needs to get the timing right. The market, the organization, and the technology have to be aligned. Arriving too early or too late can be fatal.