Rich Warren: A sad day: Sony getting out of TV business

Rich Warren: A sad day: Sony getting out of TV business

Long before the Walkman, long before the compact disc, even before Betamax, Sony established its reputation with the Trinitron TV.

Never satisfied with the RCA design for color picture tubes, Sony strove for something better, first settling on Chromatron technology from Autometric, an American company. Unable to perfect this promising design, the company investigated a GE idea of in-line electron guns. After considerable modification and refinement Sony patented and then delivered the first Trinitron TV in 1968.

This was the first dramatic improvement in color TV since RCA introduced the system in the early 1950s. Sony built the better mousetrap, and the world beat a path to its door. This success funded the many subsequent innovations that fueled Sony's success.

The Trintron patent expired in 1996. Although Sony attempted many improvements, it never created a game-changing technology like Trinitron. It ceased producing Trinitron tubes by 2008.

As with MiniDisc, which Sony focused upon nearly oblivious to MP3 and flash memory that begat the iPod, Sony spent so much effort on a Trinitron successor that it failed to concentrate on liquid crystal displays. Instead it devoted effort to plasma and organic light emitting diode displays. Plasma and OLED delivered stunning pictures, but at a hugely uncompetitive cost.

Sony left plasma development early, leaving Pioneer to develop the ultimate plasma TV, which nearly bankrupted Pioneer. Sony went on to source its LCD panels from Samsung and then Sharp.

On Feb. 6, Sony announced it was spinning off its TV division into a wholly-owned subsidiary. The transition should be completed by July. While Sony puts the best face on this, claiming it will permit that division to concentrate totally on TV, it also means the TVs will be produced by low-bidding contract manufacturers. This is not necessarily fatal, since Apple manufactures the iPhone and iPad that way.

Although I took a brief detour with Toshiba projection TVs, I've exclusively viewed Sony direct-view TVs from the days of early Trinitrons. A Sony Bravia LCD set currently graces my home theater.

To watch Sony's demise causes sorrow. It is another example of "founders' disease." So many great companies lose their way when the founders leave without properly choosing and/or grooming their successors. In Sony's case it was the loss of co-founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita during the 1990s. The jury remains out concerning Tim Cook at Apple.

Sony's current TVs favorably compete with hot brands such as Samsung, LG and Sharp when it comes to superb picture quality.

However, low-cost brands such as Vizio roil the market with good performance at rock bottom prices. Ultra-thin profit margins on TVs for all manufactures make them a near loss-leader for brands and retailers. When you purchase furniture the markup might range from 50 percent to 100 percent. When you buy a TV it's often in the range of 10 percent to 20 percent, with some models even less.

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A reader sent a question that I'll address more in depth in a future column, but preface that here by eliminating some confusion in wireless technologies. Bluetooth most commonly enables cellphones to communicate with headsets and hands-free car technology, as well as becoming common in wireless keyboards and mice. This low-power system was not originally designed to radiate significant distances or provide high fidelity and/or stereo audio. A few manufacturers refined and improved the technology for short range music transmission, such as from a cell phone or tablet to a wireless speaker. However, Bluetooth remains a one-to-one system, serving a single device from a sole source.

Wi-Fi, which continues dramatically improving, provides high fidelity, multi-channel audio and high definition video over medium distances to multiple devices from a single source, or can be programmed for a single device to receive from multiple sources. Increasing range and bandwidth make Wi-Fi the preferred system for spreading music and video throughout your home.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

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