Sony (NYSE:SNE) has recently shown an interest in competing in the set-top box space against Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL). Many analysts have viewed its announcement of PlayStation Vita TV as an indication that it hopes to head off potential gains its new competitors aim to make in the home-gaming space.
Its recently unveiled BRAVIA Smart Stick mostly supports that narrative; however, there are elements that make it somewhat of a confounding prospect. Does the device actually have a future or is it simply a stopgap in a product space that has yet to be defined?
Speak softly and carry a small stick
While the device was initially pegged as a competitor for Google's Chromecast, subsequent information has made the strategy behind the Smart Stick a little murkier. Both Google's Chromecast and Sony's BRAVIA Stick will run on Android hardware and run the Google TV suite. The platform was actually developed in conjunction by Sony, Google, Intel, and Logitech. Sony has been incorporating it into select televisions since 2010.
Yet, when analyzing the feature set, pricing, and compatibility constraints inherent to the BRAVIA Smart Stick, it becomes apparent that the device has a very limited addressable market.
The Smart Stick has more features than the $35 Chromecast, but with an expected MSRP of $149, there are reasons to doubt the device's value proposition and what it means for Sony's consumer-goods strategy going forward. Given the right setup, the Stick will allow you to access to Google's Chrome web browser, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Pandora, YouTube, and additional apps and software that can be downloaded from the Play store.
While the Chromecast requires you to use a smartphone or tablet in order to interface with its features, the BRAVIA Smart Stick will come with a remote. The remote offers a QWERTY keyboard and will also allow you to search with voice commands. That said, there is one major factor that will ensure that the Smart Stick never enjoys mass-market success. It will only work with Sony's 2013 line of BRAVIA televisions.
The decision to so dramatically limit the market for the device is a baffling one. If the price did not already present a substantial hurdle for consumers, the fact that it is incompatible with the vast majority of televisions ensures that it will never provide real competition to Google's Chromecast or the Apple TV. What's more, Sony's own PS Vita TV will offer many Smart Stick features in addition to its own strengths, be usable across a range of TV lines, and carry a lower MSRP.
True, there are consumers who are averse to purchasing a product in the PlayStation line, consumers who favor the brand power and status symbol imaging inherent to Apple devices, but Sony is not going to reach them by building set-top box solutions that require BRAVIA televisions.
Who is this thing competing against?
Seeing as how the Chromecast and BRAVIA Smart Stick support and further the same ecosystem, Sony's new device may more accurately be described as competing with Apple's offerings than Google's. The recent release of i0S 7 has brought in a wave of changes for Apple TV.
Users are now able to stream directly from the cloud and have access to expanded AirPlay features. The AppleTV has an installed base of approximately 15 million units and is expected to offer a greater array of gaming support and features in the coming years. That said, the possibilities for gaming through the device are hindered by one of Apple's design principles: a fear of buttons.
Perhaps the PS Vita TV, which will support the well-tested Dual Shock 3 and highly praised Dual Shock 4 controllers, can impede Apple's movement into the home-gaming sector, but the BRAVIA Smart Stick offers no such strategic advantage. With its current price point and highly limited addressable market, it will offer little competition to Apple's device and similar products from the likes of Roku.
Sony has been making many smart moves lately. The strategy and marketing behind the company's upcoming PlayStation 4 console have been highly commendable. Its upcoming PS Vita TV looks to bridge the divide between set-top boxes and gaming consoles while also breathing life into its lagging Vita handheld.
Meanwhile, the BRAVIA Smart Stick is a reminder of the other side of Sony, a company that is often too eager to devote resources to the research, development, and production of niche products with dim futures. With the wrong price point, limited consumer appeal, and the fact that Sony is still needs to be mindful of its cash situation, the BRAVIA Smart Stick is the type of investment that the company needs to avoid.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.