Friday, July 02, 2004 - After Long Lag, Sony Puts iPod In Its Cross Hairs - After Long Lag, Sony Puts iPod In Its Cross Hairs " Sony Corp. has unveiled its most serious challenge yet to Apple Computer Inc.'s hot iPod music player: its first Walkman with a hard drive, allowing it to store thousands of songs. But can the company that made portable music popular back in the 1970s regain the edge in the digital-music age -- or is it too late to the party?
Sony's new Network Walkman can hold as much data as a midsize iPod (20 gigabytes), but is much sleeker and smaller -- about the size of a business-card holder -- and 30% lighter. It's scheduled to go on sale this month in Japan and in August in the U.S.
Indeed, Sony's very attachment to its own technologies is partly to blame for its lateness. "I don't really like hard disks -- they're not Sony technology," said Takashi Fukushima, head of the Walkman division, when asked why it took the company so long to roll out its challenge to the iPod. "As an engineer, they're not interesting."
And when it comes to focusing marketing muscle on its new Walkman, Sony may be fighting with itself. Just last month, a different division of the company -- the one responsible for Vaio personal computers -- started sales in Japan of its own hard-drive-equipped portable music player, called the Vaio Pocket. It will be sold in the U.S. in September for about $500.
The Vaio Pocket has a 40-gigabyte hard drive and a color screen -- in contrast with the monochrome screen of the new Walkman. The Vaio Pocket also can display images such as photos taken by digital cameras, something the Walkman can't. But both use the same music-management software, link to the same Sony Connect music site and are being marketed as portable music players.
The big difference with the Vaio Pocket "is that it came out of the Vaio group," said Shizuo Takashino, Sony executive deputy president and the person in charge of both product lines. "They overlap a bit. But I think that's OK."
Mr. Takashino explains that Sony is known for letting its business units develop products autonomously, and that ultimately either the Walkman or Vaio player will probably win out in the market. Then, he adds: "I suppose from the standpoint of focus and selection it's not the best thing."
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