Norio Ohga, the former Sony chairman who helped revolutionize consumer electronics with handheld entertainment devices and who steered Sony into the entertainment biz with the acquisition of Columbia Pictures, died today of multiple organ failure in Tokyo. He was 81. (Sad that the current Sony Pictures Entertainment regime thought so little of Ohga’s passing that they didn’t even bother to inform the Hollywood media in a timely fashion.) Ohga, credited with developing the compact disc, led Sony from 1982 to 1995 after being talented-spotted by Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita while still a university student. Some decisions made during Ohga’s tenure, such as the $5 billion purchase of CBS Records and then the Hollywood studio, were criticized as unwise and costly at the time. But Ohga insisted that “hardware and software are two wheels on a car,” and his focus on music, films, and video games as a way to enrich the electronics business helped create Sony’s success in his era. His own love of music and first career as an opera singer led him to ensure the CD held 75 minutes of music — enough to store Beethoven’s complete Ninth Symphony.
Also, his outgoing persona also made him comfortable with Americans, and he put the first non-Japanese, American physicist Mickey Schulhof, on the Sony board (they both shared passions for ham radios and jet planes), which later paved the way for the hiring of Howard Stringer as Sony Corp’s first non-Japanese chairman. “It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony’s evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san’s foresight and vision,” Stringer said today.
Ohga stopped being involved in Sony’s day-to-day business in 2000. But had he been in charge I bet he never would have allowed Sony to become an also-ran to such electronics pioneers as Samsung and Apple as it has become in the last decade. Ohga saw Sony’s big consumer mistake of betting on its proprietary VCR technology of Beta over what became the industry standard of VHS. But that’s why Ohga bought into Hollywood and brought in Schulhof to head Sony USA and its entertainment subsidiaries: so that Sony would never be left out in the cold again by showbiz on such format decisions. With Ohga’s blessing, Schulhof negotiated a compromise between Sony’s proprietary CD technology and other showbiz companies and electronics makers to create a single industry standard. Again this paved the way for the same thing to happen for DVDs and Blu-ray.
Ohga assumed the blame when Schulhof brought in producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to run Sony Pictures Entertainment, and they and their handpicked execs performed so poorly that Sony Corp took a humiliating $3.2 billion write-down on the studio in 1994. There also was considerable management turmoil inside CBS Records. On the other hand, Ohga with Schulhof oversaw one of the fastest start-ups in Sony’s history, Sony Electronic Publishing, whose CD-ROM compact discs led in market share until the format gave way to new technology as did Sony’s CDs and mini-discs. However, both missed, together with Bill Gates, the Internet phenom. Here is Sony’s official obituary:
Tokyo, Japan – It is with great sadness that Sony Corporation today announced the loss of Norio Ohga, Senior Advisor and former President and Chairman, Sony Corporation. Mr. Ohga passed away at 9:14 AM on April 23, 2011 in Tokyo. The cause of death was multiple organ failure. He was 81 years old. A private wake will be held among family and close relatives, and a company service will take place at a later date.
Commenting on today’s loss, Sir Howard Stringer, Chairman, CEO and President, Sony Corporation said, “When I first joined Sony in 1997, Ohga-san was serving on the frontlines of Sony management as Chairman and CEO. His numerous and successful endeavors were well-known both inside and outside of Sony. Witnessing Ohga-san’s leadership firsthand was truly an honor, and one I continued to enjoy and benefit from in countless ways in the years that followed.
By redefining Sony as a company encompassing both hardware and software, Ohga-san succeeded where other Japanese companies failed. It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony’s evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san’s foresight and vision.
I offer my deepest condolences on his passing and pray that he may rest in peace.” (more…)