Indian smartphone makers warm up to Sony's camera sensors

As the selfie craze grows among Indians, domestic smartphone makers are increasingly turning to the best component suppliers to improve the quality of their camera phones. Japanese major Sony, best known in India for its Bravia TVs, is stepping in to fill the void.

Besides its branded consumer electronics business, Sony worldwide is also a large supplier of image sensors, a key component that is found in camera phones as well as digital cameras. It has a 40% share of the nearly $7 billion image-sensor market, making it a lucrative operation for the Japanese major. Rivals include Korean Chaebol Samsung, which has around 19-20% of the market.

Brands that use Sony's image sensors globally include Apple, which has, according to analysts, helped the Cupertino-based company raise the camera capabilities of its iPhones. Even rival Samsung despite being a supplier of image sensors itself, uses Sony's technology for its high-end phones.

Closer home, domestic brands such as Micromax, Lava and Karbonn are already users of Sony's image sensors. This list is expected to grow as Sony talks to more domestic players. "We have a device marketing team, who are talking to Indian brands. It is a big business opportunity for us given that India is a large smartphone market," Kenichiro Hibi, MD, Sony India, says.

At a time, when Sony India has been rationalising its branded consumer electronics business in line with global announcements — it exited laptops in 2014 and has increasingly focused its attention on premium Bravia TVs and smartphones - supplying image sensors to local brands like it does in China could be a viable operation, say experts. Hibi did not indicate how much revenue it earned from this operation this year.

At an overall level, India remains Sony Corporation's fourth-largest market after the US, China and Japan. Estimates are that it earns over Rs 8,000-10,000 crore in revenue from the Indian market, though Hibi did not confirm it.

He says that Bravia TVs continue to be its largest category in the country, doing volume sales of 2 million units annually. Last year, Sony began local production of TVs as the government's Make In India thrust prompts consumer electronic markets to commence domestic manufacturing. The plan is to expand manufacturing to categories such as mobile phones in the future, which Hibi says the company is contemplating.

Camera sensors and digital cameras, however, will be continued to be made in Japan, which is considered to be one of the best markets for high-end electronic gadgets in the world.

The festive season this year will see Sony India invest close to Rs 160 crore in marketing and sales activities as it looks to push categories such as smartphones and TVs. 

"Festive season will kick off with Onam in Kerala next month. We have tied up with a local brand ambassador in that market to promote our products there. At the national level, we are yet to take a call on whether we want a brand ambassador to promote our products during the Dussehra-Diwali period. We will take this decision after evaluating all options," Hibi says.

In the past, Sony had a bevy of celebrities such as Kareena Kapoor for its VAIO laptops, Deepika Padukone for its digital cameras and Mahendra Singh Dhoni for its Bravia TVs. This has been discontinued for the last few years.

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