Sony and Stringer Get Roasted at CES

By Ronald Grover

In Hollywood, they call it creative differences. In the world of trade conference salesmanship, it may just be a great way to wake up an early morning audience of delegates and consumer electronic salesmen.

Certainly, the consumer electronics industry, like just about every retail industry, could use a laugh. And when the attendees assembled on Jan. 8 for the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show, Tom Hanks was there to give it to them — alas, often at the expense of Sony, whose studio is producing his upcoming film Angels and Demons.

Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer was the opening session’s morning keynote speaker. But before Stringer took the stage, Hanks wandered on, in front of a giant billboard of the movie, feigned his love for Sony products and even mocked the “mid-level marketing executive” who wrote the lines for the teleprompter from which he mostly read. “They write the lines, I tell the truth,” Hanks said at one point.

Yes, yes, it was in all in good fun. But there was a certain sting. “What a fool I had been if I had just been one of the 600 people who had bought a Betamax machine,” Hanks bellowed, a reference to Sony’s wrong call in choosing that format in the early ’80s over the ultimately victorious VHS tape. Now, he said, tongue in cheek, he seems to see Sony everywhere he goes. “I have a Sony TV set, Blu-ray player, look there are 10 Sony teleprompters out there. I even boot up with a Sony computer.” With that, Hanks stopped, feigned his quite obvious fib and all but winked at the audience.

Ah, but then things really got goofy. Stringer, on stage now (admitting "I took a chance" with Hanks), showed off a newly developed set of Sony glasses that allows people to watch a movie while at the same time seeing through them as actual glasses.

"So I can see myself 10 years ago in a movie then look in a mirror and see myself now," mocked Hanks. Not to worry, Stringer said; they were were sending a pair to Hanks. "Great, I'll be checking my Fed Ex deliveries."

Then, before heading off the stage -- and being thanked by Stringer for showing up ("I had to," said Hanks, "you wrote it into my contract."), Hanks made a final gesture: "Now will you release my money from Angels and Demons," he pleaded. "Maybe not," responded Stringer.

Then Stringer got down to the business of showing off Sony's latest products. Key to Sony's plan, he said, was a goal to have 90% of its consumer electronic products linked wirelessly -- to each other and the outside via the Web -- by 2011. Already, he said, the company's Bravo TV set, which can stream TV shows and movies directly from the Web -- will go on sale in the U.S. this Spring. He also showed off a Wi-Fi camera, called Cybershot, that allows users to upload digital camera pictures to the Internet. In a deal with AT&T, he said, the company currently is offering the service at 100 hot spots.

Sony even had a wireless upgrade to one of America's most under-appreciated consumer electronic products, the clock radio. A soon to be introduced radio, said Stringer, would be hooked to the Internet, allowing the consumer to upload his favorite music from the web (Stringer downloaded "My Lucky Day" from Bruce Springsteen, a Sony recording artist) as well as video on a video screen front that could include news programs, the local weather, or just about anything else.

The clock, said Stringer, would be programmed ahead of time by the user. "And for some of you, I guess, it might be the best thing to wake up to in the morning." Yes, it was that kind of day. First Tom Hanks. Then Sony's CEO doing his own shtick.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.