Sony rethinks mobile strategy, sees cheap phones and possibly, Firefox OS as its savior

Sony Xperia Phone LogoIt seems like there’s a bit of confusion over at Sony regarding the mobile division’s plans for the near future, as the company’s head of business told Reuters this week it wants to become the world’s third largest phone manufacturer – it’s currently in fourth place – and that it sees cheaper phones as a key strategy to make this happen.

This is at odds with with a quote from Xperia Product Manager Stephen Sneedon, who said just after CES 2013, its entry level smartphones don’t have enough, “Sonyness,” and it, “Might leave the very entry tier to some other manufacturers. However, according to Kunimasa Suzuki, who spoke to Reuters, cheap Sony phones are here to stay and it’s now planning to vary its strategy depending on the geographical location – a similar approach to Samsung.

To achieve its goal of third place behind Samsung and Apple, it needs to pass Huawei and fend off the mounting challenge from ZTE. While the Chinese pair have been producing some interesting top-end pieces of hardware recently, both are still very strong in the low-to-mid-range too. Sony says its cheaper phones are needed to make a splash in the all-important developing markets around the world, but it doesn’t look like Sony will only adopt Android for this mission, as it may have its sights set even lower.

A clue to its plans comes from a recently announced partnership between Sony and the European network Telefonica to jointly evaluate Mozilla’s Firefox OS. The statement was rapidly followed by the release of a developer-ready version of Firefox OS for the Xperia E, one of the most basic phones in Sony’s range. You don’t go making announcements like this without a plan in place, and Firefox OS is almost solely targeted at emerging markets and low price points. This will leave expensive smartphones such as the Xperia Z to be sold only in established smartphone markets.

ZTE revealed the ZTE Open at Mobile World Congress, which along with the Alcatel One Touch Fire were the two phones running Firefox OS at the show, so Sony is already playing catchup. Sony though, has the advantage of its good name, which could mean even an Xperia E running Firefox OS will sell well in the right place; however it doesn’t expect to put a Firefox phone on sale until 2014, while the first Firefox OS phones from other manufacturers are expected to go on sale this summer.