Sony Minidisc: Failed Innovation?

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  • Topic: Compact Cassette, Compact Disc, Digital Compact Cassette
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  • Published : April 10, 2008
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Sony MiniDisc: Failed Innovation?

A case study of the conception, production and distribution of the MiniDisc

David Reid

Technological change and advancement is driven by invention and innovation, and it is important to discern between these two very different terms. ‘The former refers to new concepts or products that derive from individual’s ideas or from scientific research. The latter, on the other hand, represents the commercialization of the invention itself’ (Scocco, 2006). There are countless numbers of occasions where good inventions fail to penetrate the marketplace. The Sinclair C5 (Marks, 1990), British Rail’s APT (Potter, 1989) and Sony’s very own nightmare, Betamax (Cusumano et al. 1992), are all examples of inventions that for one reason or another, failed to make the step up to innovation. ‘A fundamental requirement of a focus on technological change is the ability to identify product development opportunities and to translate these into successful products. It is also important that the product development process is effectively and efficiently organized and managed.’ (Maffin et al. 1997 p.53). If there is no market for the product, i.e. the invention tries to solve a non-existent problem, or if the development process is mismanaged and inefficient then it is likely that the product will be a flop.

The aim of this project is to analyse whether Sony’s MiniDisc (MD) format has breached the gap between invention and innovation. The strength of relevant appropriability regimes, emergence of a dominant design, the firm’s innovative capability, market dynamics, industry context and the status of complementary assets all factor into the outcome of the innovation process (Teece 1986). Only by looking at these factors in the case of the MD can a judgement be made its validity as an innovation.

In 1979, Sony launched the cassette Walkman, an innovation which defined a new product category, set industry standards and in an instant became the dominant design (Murmann and Frenken, 2006) for personal audio devices worldwide. Sony enjoyed a large market share for several years after the introduction of the Walkman, even though the Compact Disc format was introduced in 1982. Sony cleverly marketed the cassette Walkman as complimentary good rather than a substitute for CDs. The ability to listen to Walkmans on the move, their sturdiness and the recording ability, which gave birth to the mix-tape, were all qualities which made the Walkman a resounding success. By 1990 over 50 million Walkmans from a range of 200 models had been sold by Sony. However in 1991, for the first time, CDs outsold cassette tapes and it was patently obvious that the days of tape-based personal audio device were numbered (du Gay et al. 1997).

This fact had not escaped the minds at the Sony corporation and since the early to mid 80s they had been working on the task to find alternatives to the read only CD. The Audio Development Group (ADG) had made some very interesting discoveries by 1986 including Digital Audio Tape and a prototype recordable CD device. The president of Sony, Norio Ohga, saw a demonstration of the new recordable CD technology in 1989 and was hugely impressed by it (Harryson, 1998). To combat the decline of cassette tape technology, Ohga gave the ADG the following task, ‘developing a recording and playback device that uses a disc smaller than the CD to replace the audio compact cassette.’ (Sony Corporation). The deadline for the ADG team to have the product ready for launch into the market was November 1992, ambitious even for Sony.

In 1982 Sony had collaborated with Philips to introduce the Compact Disc as a long term replacement for vinyl long play albums. As is apparent by the soaring sales and huge popularity of CD albums, this partnership was very fruitful and understandably both companies were eager to undertake another alliance. However, when discussions between the two firms initiated, there was evidently...
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