Sony launches Net access device

In January, Sony debuted the eVilla at the Consumer Electronics Show, saying then the machine would be out in April. The launch has been delayed twice, first to May and then to Thursday to finalise partnership agreements with content providers, according to Rob Bartels, Sony Electronics general manager for product development who is overseeing the launch. Sony also wanted to iron out some "software and hardware integration issues" related to new features added since eVilla's unveiling in January, he said.

Other vendors have been bailing out of the Internet appliance market. 3Com discontinued its Audrey device in March after six months on the market, Netpliance Inc. announced in November that it would stop selling its I-opener product, Virgin Entertainment Group's Webplayer lasted less than three months, and Gateway is "rethinking" its net appliance strategy.

Sony seems to be counting on the power of its brand name in consumer electronics to carry the day where others have failed. "Sony, the brand itself, offers consumers a certain credibility," Bartels said. "Unlike those other products, we offer a compelling package of hardware, software and service."

The eVilla features a 15-inch Trinitron flat cathode-ray tube screen, turned on its end to present a better view of Web pages for scrolling. The unit uses a GOGX-1 processor chip from National Semiconductor, rated at 266MHz, although its performance is better in an eVilla than its clock speed would indicate, Bartels said. "We find that (the processor) is more than sufficient for watching streaming video on the Internet," he said. The eVilla carries 64MB of DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory).

Along with stereo speakers, a standard keyboard and a mouse, the eVilla has two USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports and a Memory Stick flash memory card reader. The USB ports do not offer the universal access to peripheral devices one might expect, however. In order to plug a device in, drivers must be installed on the appliance. While the eVilla has drivers for Iomega Corp. Zip drives pre-installed, there are no drivers for devices that compete with Sony's Memory Stick, like SmartMedia or CompactFlash cards.

Sony would consider offering drivers in an online update of the appliance's software, "if we see the user base," in the future, Bartels said.

Device drivers for the eVilla are developed only with companies working closely with Sony because the eVilla doesn't use Microsoft's Windows operating system or Internet Explorer browser, nor is it compatible with Windows Media files. The unit uses Be's BeIA operating system and uses the Opera Web browser from Opera Software, and will play multimedia content delivered in Real Networks' Real format.

Sony would consider adding Windows Media functionality for the future, but wanted partnerships aimed at "the leading format" for music now, Bartels said.

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