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It all began with a failed rice cooker – a glimpse at Sony’s history

It’s a well known fact that Sony, a multinational conglomerate head-quartered in Tokyo, Japan, is one of the leading brands in the consumer as well as professional electronics market today. However, what is not widely known is how it all began. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the company’s history – it’s journey from the beginning to where it is today, as well as some its milestone products.

The Beginning

Around 70 years ago, in the year 1945, defense contractor Masaru Ibuka established a company called Tokyo Tsushin Kenkyujo”(Totsuken), or Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute. This was the time when the World War II had just ended. Ibuka’s firm operated from the third floor of the damaged Shirokiya Department Store (shown below) in Tokyo.

Although the company mainly focused on radio repairs, it also came up with its own product: an electric rice cooker.

Made by interlocking aluminum electrodes connected to the bottom of a wooden tub, the product lacked innovation, and mostly produced either overcooked or undercooked rice – the result depended on the type of rice as well as the quantity of water used. Overall, it was a failed attempt, and the cooker never hit the market.

Tape recorders and transistors

In May 1946, Ibuka joined hands with former naval lieutenant Akio Morita to launch a new business called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K. (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation), also known as Totsuko.

Based in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, the firm was started with an initial investment of 190,000 yen (around $ 1,500 today), and also incorporated Ibuka’s radio repair business along with its entire staff. Totsuko focused on research and manufacture of telecommunications and measuring equipment.

The company’s first creation was a ‘Power megaphone’ that went on sale in October 1947. Three years later, the firm launched Japan’s first magnetite-coated, paper-based recording tape, dubbed Soni-Tape.

A few months later, the country’s first magnetic tape recorder, the G-Type was also launched. Interestingly, the device was viewed as a product for government use, hence the G in G Type.

The product didn’t sell well initially, primarily because people knew little about tape recorders and how they can be useful. This led to Ibuka and Morita personally visiting places like government agencies, schools, and universities to market the product, and convince people that they need one. Eventually, their efforts bore fruit, and the product sales picked up.

The very next year, Totsuko launched the P-Type portable tape recorder, which was not only smaller and lighter than G-Type, but was also less expensive. It was also commercially successful.

In 1952, Ibuka and Morita learned about transistor (developed by Bell Laboratories) on their trip to the US. They wasted no time in applying for its license, which they obtained in 1953. Given the fact that transistors were a smaller, durable, and less expensive alternative to vacuum tubes (which were used in Totsuko’s products till now), the company started working on a small radio that could be carried in hand or pocket.

Meanwhile, with an aim to go global, both Ibuka and Morita decided to have a short brand name that could be easily remembered – they zeroed down on SONY, a mix of the Latin word “Sonus” (which meant sound) and “Sonny”, an American name for boys mostly used in 1950s. This happened in the year 1955, when the company finally released TR-55, the country’s first transistor radio. Measuring in at just 14 x 8.9 x 3.4cm, the device was an instant hit.

The Sony brand became immensely popular, so much so that the company changed its own name to Sony Corporation in 1958. A couple of years later the company launched a transistorized television, and also established trade offices in the US and Switzerland.

The early 1960s saw the company developing transistor based products including the TC-777 amp tape recorder, world’s smallest and lightest TV dubbed TV5-303, country’s first stereo amplifier, the TA-1120, as well as the TC-357, a tape recorder featuring automatic recording adjustment.

In the second half of the decade, Sony launched products like its first cassette tape recorder, the Magazine-matic 100 TC-100, world’s first IC radio, the ICR-100, as well as a Chromatron-type 19-inch color TV, 19C-70, and Trinitron color TV dubbed KV-1310 (shown below).

This was also the decade when the Japanese company entered into a 50-50 joint venture with America’s CBS Inc. The entity would become Sony Music Entertainment in a few decades.

VCR, Betamax, and Walkman

The next decade brought along the cassette age. In 1971, Sony launched a 3/4-inch u-matic color video cassette player dubbed VP-1100, and in the following year, a u-matic color video cassette recorder dubbed VO-1700 (shown below) was launched.

The year 1973 saw the company getting an Emmy award for developing the Trinitron color TV system – this was the first Emmy ever awarded to a Japanese company.

Meanwhile, the company was expanding globally – German, Spanish, and French subsidiaries were set up in the first few years of the decade.

In 1975, Sony launched a 1/2-inch “Betamax” VCR dubbed SL-6300. While the VO-1700 catered to a limited audience such as television stations, the SL-6300 was aimed directly at the consumer market.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese company was sued by leading US movie studios over piracy concerns. However, the final judgement was in favor of Sony.

Although Betamax video format was successful, Sony failed to establish it as an industry standard, allowing competitors to develop the VHS (video home system) format, which was in-fact technically superior to Betamax. Gradually, VHS not only overtook Betamax in popularity, but also rendered it obsolete.

Soon after Sony launched its first tape recorder in 1950, the company hired Norio Ohga – an opera student at the Academy of Art in Tokyo – who had suggested several improvements in the product. In the late 1970’s, on co-founder Masaru Ibuka’s desire to listen to music on a device more portable than the company’s existing TC-D5 cassette players, Ohga – who was the company’s Executive Deputy President then – started working on a compact cassette tape.

The year 1979 saw the company launch the TPS-L2 (shown above), the first model of the first-generation Walkman personal stereos. The product, which included headphones and a leather case (as well as a second earphone jack), became a roaring success. It’s worth mentioning that the device was launched as the Sound-About in the US and the Stowaway in the UK, but Sony later settled for the brand name Walkman – the term became so popular that it was even included in Oxford dictionary in 1986.

CD Players, Handycam, and Columbia Pictures acquisition

In the year 1982, Sony launched the world’s first compact disc player in Japan. Dubbed the CDP-101, the $ 1,000 device was released in the US just a few months later.

In the same year, the company also launched the BVW-1, a 1/2-inch Betacam integrated camera/VTR for analog-based professional broadcasting use.

The following year saw the company being split into five divisions: marketing and sales, manufacturing, service, engineering, and diversified operations. In 1984, Sony launched the world’s first portable CD player dubbed D-50. The device, which was approximately the size of four CD cases, was later called Discman.

1984 was also the year when the Japanese company bought the rights to use Apple’s hard-disk technology, a move that effectively allowed Sony to capture nearly one-fifth of the Japanese market for workstations, and PCs used in offices. The company also started manufacturing and marketing electronic components for other companies that year, something it had never done before.

The following year, an 8mm camcorder dubbed CCD-V8 was launched. Weighing in at 1.97kg, it was the world’s first video camcorder of its kind.

In the later half of the decade, Sony launched the MVC-C1, a consumer-use still camera that was marketed as an electronic camera for the TV age. It offered features like auto-strobe, fast successive shooting, timer functions, and TV screen display.

In the year 1989, the CCD-TR55 was launched. Nicknamed Handycam, the device was a compact and lightweight passport-sized 8mm camcorder.

This was also the year when Sony purchased American film company Columbia Pictures for $ 3.4 billion in cash. This was the largest US acquisition by a Japanese firm to that date. A few years later, the entity was renamed Sony Pictures Entertainment.

PlayStation, Cybershot, and VAIO

The early 1990s brought a tough time for Sony as majority of the world’s largest economies – including the US, Japan, and Europe – experienced a slowdown. Ohga – who had become the Sony’s CEO by then – along with Morita tried to steer the company out of this situation but couldn’t succeed completely – net income decreased 50% in 1994.

Meanwhile, the KW-3600HD, an HD-equipped, 16:9 wide aspect ratio, 36-inch consumer-use television launched in 1990, and Sony Computer Entertainment was established in 1993. Sony entered the Japanese gaming market the following year, introducing the 32-bit PlayStation. The console, which landed in the US a year later, was a huge success.

The year 1995 saw Sony’s first consumer-use digital video camcorder DCR-VX1000/DCR-VX700, a.k.a Digital Handycam. In addition, basic specifications of the DVD format were finalized this year, and Sony Communication Network Corporation was also established in 1995. The following year, Sony launched its digital still camera Cybershot DSC-F1 (shown below). The Japanese company also established it Chinese subsidiary this year.

1997 was an important year in the Sony history as it saw the launch of the company’s home-use PC VAIO series. The flat CRT WEGA series, as well as the world’s first broadcast-targeted HD camcorder, HDW-700 and its first DVD player came this year.

Towards the end of the decade in 1999, the Japanese company launched the ERS-110, the first-generation model of the AIBO four-legged autonomous entertainment robot, which could not only express but also learn emotions.

Unfortunately, this was also the year when co-founder Morita passed away.

Change in focus

With the advent of 2000s, Sony changed its strategy a bit, and started focusing on digital and gaming market, as well as emerging networks such as broadband, wireless, and home. In the year 2000, the Japanese company launched the sequel to its original PlayStation gaming console.

Dubbed PlayStation 2, the product was more of a home entertainment center as it could play audio CDs and DVD movies, as well connect to the Internet. The console was hugely successful.

Some other milestones that Sony achieved in this decade were:

  • Launch of the personal IT television Airboard IDT-LF1 in 2000.
  • Development of world’s largest (13 inch) full color organic EL display and establishment of Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications in 2001.
  • Launch of world’s first Blu-ray recorder BDZ-S77 in 2003.
  • Establishment of Sony BMG Music Entertainment and development of world’s first mercury-free button-shaped silver-oxide battery in the year 2004.
  • Launch of BRAVIA brand HDTV-compatible flat-screen TVs in 2005.
  • Launch of world’s first Blu-ray Disc drive Notebook PC (VAIO typeA) as well as PlayStation 3 in 2006.
  • Development of Bio Battery (that generated electricity from glucose), and launch of world’s first OLED TV in 2007.
  • Launch of world’s smallest full HD Handycam HDR-TG1 in 2008.
  • Development of finger vein authentication technology dubbed Mofiria and unveiling of new brand message make.believe in 2009.
  • Launch of Cyber-shot and NEX series still cameras, as well as Sony Internet TV in 2010.
  • Introduced its Xperia line of tablets in 2011
  • Launch of Playstation 4 in 2013.

Mobile Phones

As noted in the milestones above, the entity Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications was established in the year 2001. Clear from its name, the company was a joint venture formed by the Japanese company and Swedish-based Ericsson with an aim to manufacture top-quality multimedia mobile-phones. Here are some of the company’s handsets that deserve a mention:

The first handset that Sony Ericsson outed was the T68i in the year 2002. Based on Ericsson’s already-released T68 mobile phone, the device’s features included color display, a built-in e-mail client, bluetooth, GPRS, as well as two-way MMS, among others.

The $ 650 T68i, which came with a Joystick for navigation, also featured in the James Bond film Die Another Day.

In the year 2003, Sony Ericsson came up with the T610. Sporting a premium design and a 65,000 color display with 128×160 pixels resolution, the device could also take 288 x 352 pixels resolution pictures.

It garnered praise from both critics as well as end users, and was one of the company’s most successful handsets.

The year 2005 saw the launch of the K750i mobile phone, which sported a 2MP rear camera with auto-focus. It also had an MP3 player and expandable storage.

This was also the year when Sony Ericsson launched the W800, its first Walkman series phone. The device could play MP3 and AAC files, and lasted for up to 30 hours in Music mode.

It also featured Flight mode, Bluetooth v1.2 (with full Bluetooth 2.0 compliance), Infrared, and USB connectivity.

In 2006, the K800 was launched. It was the company’s first Cyber-shot-branded mobile phone. The handset sported a 3.2 MP camera with auto-focus and Macro mode, and offered 32x digital zoom and red-eye reduction.

It also featured the BestPic functionality that allowed users to take 9 successive images of the same subject in full resolution to choose the best shot.

The year 2007 saw Apple launching the first generation iPhone. Like many other mobile companies, Sony Ericsson failed to quickly respond to threat of the Cupertino-based company’s first handset, which brought along the touchscreen craze.

Like Nokia, Sony Ericsson first went ahead with Symbian (its P series phones), but then ditched it in favor of Android and Windows Phone platforms citing lack of demand in the market. While the company debuted its Xperia series in 2008, the Xperia X10 (shown below) was its first Android phone that launched in the year 2010 – all previous models of the series ran Windows Phone OS.

This was followed by the launch of devices like the Xperia X10 mini pro, Xperia X10 mini, Xperia Arc, Xperia Play (shown below), and Xperia Ray.

In late 2011, Sony announced that it’s acquiring the Sony Ericsson joint venture for $ 1.5 billion. The famous Sony Ericsson branding ceased in the year 2012, when the acquisition completed, and the erstwhile joint venture was renamed Sony Mobile Communication. It was also decided that, moving forward, the entity will only concentrate on selling smartphones.

The Xperia S – that came out in 2012 itself – became the first smartphone to ship with the Sony branding. The device featured 32GB internal memory a 4.3-inch HD display and a 12MP rear camera.

Gradually, the Xperia brand encompassed Sony Mobile’s smartphone portfolio, with flagships including Xperia Ion and Xperia Acro, as well as Xperia Z1, Z2, and Z3 that launched in the following years.

This brings us to the company’s latest flagship smartphone: the Xperia Z4, which was announced in April this year and is available internationally as the Xperia Z3+.

Unfortunately, the device’s sales were hampered by heating issues, although the company soon released an update to fix the problem.


Like any other company, Sony has had its share of hiccups – last year, the company sold off its struggling VAIO computer division and spun off its failing bravia TV business. There have even been reports of the company considering selling its mobile phone unit. And who could forget last year’s hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment and the subsequent troubles related to the release of the film The Interview.

But isn’t all this part of the game? Every company goes through rough phases, and Sony is no exception. However, what really matters is learning from your own mistakes and adapting to the changing times, which we hope Sony will continue doing.

References: Sony | Sony Mobile | Reference for Business | Sony – The Company and its Founders | Phone Arena | Android Authority | The Guardian

Image Sources: Old Tokyo | Getty Images | Gizmodo | WikiMedia | Sony Vintage

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