Opinion: Sony's plan for smart image sensors could be a game changer

June 29, 2020 // By Peter Clarke
Opinion: Sony's plan for smart image sensors could be a game changer
Sony's plan to mount an AI software subscription service on top of its image sensors looks like it could be a game changer; both literally and metaphorically.

Sony, well known as a consumer electronics giant, has had to spend several years rebuilding itself after it fell prey to the undercutting pressure from other Asian companies and countries. No more Sony Walkman, no more Sony Viao computers and relative few Sony televisions.

Sony's move into content in the form of films and games along with its leadership in CMOS image sensors have been key to that rebuilding.

And now it has had the smart idea of letting its image sensors evolve to become single-component imaging subsystems and mount its own software on top of that (see Sony plans to turn image sensors into a subscription platform).

It is a smart idea in a number of ways.

1) First and most important: the idea of performing the maximum amount of AI processing in the sensor component gives Sony the chance of owning a share of a tremendously rich and extensive set of applications in every sector that CMOS image sensors have been deployed, which is very many indeed. This condenses the data and produces useful information while minimizing communications and energy consumption and preserving privacy, which may be key in some applications.

2) Leading the market: While Sony is the market leader in image sensors it has the likes of Samsung and Omnivision hard on its heels (see Samsung, ST grow market share in strong image sensor market). In addition, there are Chinese image sensor vendors that are likely to rise up quickly undercutting its margin, so this is exactly the right time to be making a move and changing the game while it can. As market leader Sony is in a position to establish norms and standards for this sort of offering.

3) Customers' customers: As a vendor of image sensor hardware Sony's CMOS image sensor sales are dominated by five customers, the leading smartphone manufacturers. The loss of one or more of those customers to a rival selling something almost as good would have a severe impact on Sony. How long can Sony keep selling image sensors in Samsung smartphones? By adding a layer of software subscription, Sony gains potential access to its customers' customers, reduces dependence on its big customers and, potentially, creates more stickability with those customers.

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