Sony Ericsson focused on smartphones, but keeps options open

Handset maker won't release devices with larger screens just for the sake of offering a new form factor, exec says

Despite the hype that's built up around tablet computers and handheld devices with larger screens, Sony Ericsson remains focused on smartphones even as it keeps its future product options open, according to a top company executive.

"We are looking at everything -- all opportunities and many possibilities -- but we also have a clear strategy now to be the communications and entertainment brand and what drives communications and entertainment now is smartphones," said Kristian Tear, executive vice president and head of global sales and marketing at Sony Ericsson, during an interview in Singapore.

After watching its unit sales tumble over the last year, Sony Ericsson aims to win back customers with a new line of smartphones running Google's Android operating system, led by the Xperia X10. The company also plans to release a line of handsets running Windows Phone 7 after Microsoft releases the software later this year.

While smartphone demand remains strong, the success of Apple's iPad has opened up new possibilities for handset makers looking to expand into new markets.

Tablet computers have been around for years, but poor battery life and inadequate software kept them largely on the sidelines until the iPad came along. With 2 million units sold in less than two months, the iPad's early success proved there is demand for tablet computers, spurring other companies to develop competing products.

But aspiring iPad competitors face a major hurdle: there's currently no tablet software that can match Apple's iOS 4. Windows 7 is too big and runs on x86 processors instead of more power-efficient Arm chips. Android runs on Arm and is popular with smartphone makers, but Google isn't expected to have a tablet version of the operating system ready until later this year.

As a result, some device makers opted to develop their own software, while others apparently wait for a tablet version of Android to be released.

For example, Hewlett-Packard aims to use WebOS on tablets after its acquisition of Palm, but the company hasn't given a date for when such a product will hit the market. And BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is developing its own tablet computer, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reported the device could be released before the end of this year.

There has also been speculation that Motorola is developing a tablet computer based on Android.

There are rumors that Sony Ericsson plans to launch a device with a 5-inch screen, largely based on a blurry picture that appeared on a Chinese discussion board in June. But the rumored device more closely resembles an oversized smartphone than a tablet.

Compared to the iPad, which has a 9.7-inch screen, the rumored Sony Ericsson device is more similar to Dell's Streak, which Dell calls a "hybrid device" that falls somewhere between smartphones and tablets.

Sony Ericsson is "always" looking at different device form factors, but the company won't release a device with a screen that's bigger than the X10 unless it feels the device complements focus on communications and entertainment applications, Tear said, without disclosing the company's future product plans.

"When we see we can do unique things for the consumer segment, then we're going to do that. But we're not going to start doing a certain form factor just because it's a form factor," he said.

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