Sony reinvented its design language and nobody will notice
The new Xperia XZ2 looks like the best phone that nobody is going to buy in 2018.
Sony has never been a major player when it comes to smartphone sales. That's not to say it doesn't make great stuff; ask anyone who has a Sony phone or has had a Sony phone and you'll hear the same things — built tough, unique camera features (even though the camera isn't the greatest), and amazingly sharp LCD displays are the norms from both the high-end and the low. It's just difficult for any company to compete when it comes to selling phones and it's not at all like selling televisions or game consoles. Sony had to adapt to stay relevant on even a tiny scale. And it did. And nobody will notice or care.
I'm talking about the new Xperia XZ2 family. Sony has ditched some of the things that don't sound new on a spec sheet and come up with a new design style for its flagship series of phones. It kept a few things like fancy camera tricks and a laser-sharp HDR LCD panel, but it's edging closer to the plain black slab model that seems to be the key to success: 18:9 screens, no side bezels to speak of, a fingerprint sensor on the back, and front-facing speakers. It's a smart move to emulate the phones we love to buy, but it's probably too little too late because Sony isn't going to be the company that can scratch Samsung's armor and takes a chunk of its sales.
Sony's changes are the right move to increase sales, but it's not finishing it up and making us love the product.
Everyone has a favorite company when it comes to companies that make phones. Mine's HTC (unfortunately) and I'm not quite in the mindless fanboy section but I will favor their products if I have the choice. Part of what made a company our favorite is an influence from somewhere besides our head. That could be a commercial or billboard ad, or word of mouth from our friends, or even a blog post. Something, somewhere made each and every one of us decide to take a hard look at our favorite brand. Sony's problem is that there is nobody or nothing influencing any of us in a positive way, at least not enough to get people to buy their phones in any numbers.
Sony as a company knows all of this and seemingly knows it better than a lot of other companies. You can come up with plenty of reasons why the PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 were wildly successful and sold more than other consoles which had better specs and a more robust online network, but they're all circular (e.g., they get "better" exclusives because they are wildly successful, they are wildly successful because they get better exclusives). Once you finish running in that circle you come to the realization that the PlayStation 3 and 4 were so successful because we wanted them more than we wanted a Microsoft console. Sony did what they could do to make us want it and buy it and then buy an updated version that was smaller and worse a second time.
Turns out that selling phones is different than selling PlayStations.
The company isn't doing any of that with their smartphone division, and I have no idea why. I used to think it was because they were satisfied with a strong market presence in Europe and Japan, but numbers there are declining thanks to companies like Huawei and efforts from Samsung and Apple to move in and gobble everything up like they've done in the Americas. Now I just shrug and come out with an "I dunno" because I don't have any internal and unqualified justification I can project on a multi-billion dollar company's management style. I am qualified, however, to notice it and to mention it and I am: Sony either does not care about selling phones or they don't understand how to compete with Samsung on even a small level. I can say this with complete confidence because it's not difficult to spot.
Which brings us back to a new design language for the Xperia line. I'm the first to admit that tiny bezels, tall gangly screens, and no headphone jacks are not things I love, but I'm in the minority. Sony is moving forward with the market, even if they are a year late. This is a good thing and I'm going to bet that most people who do buy Sony phones are going to approve of the changes. I also love the way Sony resisted and stuck with a lower-resolution LCD so the company's excellent HDR can provide the same amazing look Sony owners are used to seeing. Never give up a thing you do better than everyone else just so you can be like everyone else, and Sony is never going to do high-resolution AMOLED as good as Samsung does it. But the changes just aren't going to make a difference and Sony is not going to make a profit from the phone division because of these changes unless they can make us want a new Xperia.
Maybe Sony is happy with the smartphone division's performance and this is enough. We'll have to wait and see.
I'm not a marketing genius, so I'll make no claims about knowing what Sony can do here. It's my job to react to things phone makers do, not come up with ideas about what they should do next. I'll happily eat my hat should Sony make a breakthrough and sell 50 million Xperia XZ2 phones, though, and would love to see it happen. We need more companies making products and fighting for our money, not fewer, especially companies like Sony who do bring great things to the market.