Sony's maverick cofounder pushed our buttons

By Troy Patterson
Updated October 15, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Sony Corp. cofounder and former chairman Akio Morita became entranced by technology as a boy when his father replaced the family’s Victrola — the gizmo that the dog tilts its head toward in RCA ads — with an electric phonograph. This June — less than four months before the 78-year-old Morita’s death of pneumonia on Oct. 3, in Tokyo — Sony introduced a dog of its own, a $2,000 robot pet, and sold all 3,000 Japanese units in a mere 20 minutes. It was Morita’s genius not merely to help create one of the first global corporations but to shape a modern hunger for electronic diversions that inexorably led to the sold-out hi-fi Fido.

If cofounder Masaru Ibuka, the brilliant engineer who died in 1997, was Sony’s internal circuitry, then Morita was responsible for both the eye of its camera (registering the wants of conspicuous consumers) and its ever-flickering screen (with image-building acumen that’s made Sony the best-rated brand name in this country). He was a conceptual innovator who coined the term ”time shift” to describe the free-form tube viewing allowed by the home VCR and cooked up the notion of ”headphone culture” to make the Walkman seem fashionably pedestrian.

Ibuka and Morita founded Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp. in 1946. Eleven years later, they scored their first major hit under the brand name Sony (from the Latin sonus, for sound, and designed to resonate with the U.S. slang ”sonny boy”) with the pocket-size transistor radio. Never mind that it wouldn’t actually fit into standard- size shirt pockets; the TR-63 proved to be a totable totem of youth culture and also foretold the beeping approach of personal gadgets like the cellular phone, the laptop computer, the portable videogame, and the digital assistant.

By perfecting the color TV picture tube with Trinitron in 1968, building the revolutionary if ill-fated Betamax VCR in 1975, and (allied with Philips and PolyGram) creating the compact disc player in 1982, Sony developed the hunk of bourgeois furniture now called the home entertainment system. Though such hardware, like the robot dog, often discourages interaction with living beings, Morita remained sensitive to the isolationist threat: Before the Walkman made its 1979 debut, he demanded that it be equipped with both a second headphone jack and a button to allow the two listeners to chat with their headphones on. No matter; in the brave new world of the Walkman, even two’s a crowd.

”He freed up music with that machine,” says Gloria Estefan. ”Which also created a market for the product that goes into it.” Tapping into that market in 1988, Morita approved the purchase of CBS Records and enjoyed success with artists including Estefan, Michael Jackson, and Bruce Springsteen. Sony’s controversial foray into the movie business has been substantially less glorious. Morita organized the 1989 purchase of Columbia Pictures, which, all told, cost Sony $6 billion. A decade of lavish spending and managerial missteps later, the studio still hasn’t turned itself around.

Such headstrong foibles only underscore Morita’s individualistic streak. Once, dismissing the value of market research, he said, ”The public does not know what is possible, but we do.” In discovering what is technologically possible, Morita transformed how we look and listen to ourselves.