Sony sees TV at the center of networked home

In the broadband age the TV will replace the PC as the center of online entertainment, running on a Linux-based platform for connected home electronics devices, Sony President and Chief Operating Officer Kunitake Ando said Thursday.

"The television is being reborn as an always-on and interactive device … as the center of broadband entertainment," Ando said in a keynote address at the opening of the annual Consumer Electronics Show. "The first 50 years of color television were only the infancy stage."

Ando called for industry cooperation in consumer electronics as well as technology to make the broadband revolution happen, otherwise all might miss the boat. Last month, Sony of Tokyo and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., better known by its Panasonic brand, announced they had begun joint development of a version of the Linux operating system for digital consumer electronics devices. Japan's top two players also secured basic support from a number of other major consumer electronics makers.

"Traditional competitors like Sony and other consumer electronics companies will have to work together. If they don't, the broadband wave will come over us. My message is that we need to collaborate now in order to realize our broadband dreams and to deliver real value to our customers," Ando said.

"We are advocating an open approach. Companies must work together, smashing barriers and developing interoperability between PCs and audio and video products," Ando said. In Sony's vision, PCs function as servers to the TV. Sony's RoomLink product, announced for the U.S. market on Wednesday, enables that.

Sony will offer its CoCoon Linux-based networked movie and music jukebox, already announced in Japan, around the world. "CoCoon will transform television into an interactive experience," Ando said. Sony did not give a timeframe for the international availability of CoCoon.

CoCoon has a hard disk drive and connects to broadband network services, allowing users to access movies or audio over the Internet. The device can be controlled with a remote control, through a home network using the PC and with a mobile phone, a Sony representative said in a show demonstration.

CoCoon is based on Montavista Linux, a version of the operating system for embedded devices. Both Sony and Matsushita hold stakes in Montavista Software Inc., alongside IBM, Toshiba Corp., Intel Corp. and others.

As part of its home broadband entertainment strategy, Sony also announced that cable company Charter Communications Inc. licensed its Passage technology for broadband services delivery.

Ando's presentation centered on entertainment and featured stars from the entertainment industry. Movie star Drew Barrymore, currently filming a sequel to Charlie's Angels, took part in a home-movie-making demo. Grammy-winning Mary Mary performed with a dancing two-legged robot, the SDR (Sony Dream Robot) on its first visit to the U.S., and two dancing Aibo robot dogs.

While Sony may be calling for industry cooperation, it wasn't showing much of it on stage here, commented Fred Dunner, director of sales and engineering for Post Alarm Systems in Arcadia, California, who attended the keynote.

"It seems like Sony still wants to do it alone. They want to be the center of the universe. It needs to be a partnership of companies, now I need to have a Sony Wega TV connected to a Sony Vaio PC and a Sony CoCoon device to make it work," he said.

"Ando has shown that he does not want to be part of anything Microsoft but has shown that [Sony] will continue to innovate, that is one thing that you can't ignore, " Dunner added.

In a meeting with reporters after his keynote address, Ando said Sony is not against Microsoft Corp. and is in fact in talks with the software company to make IT products work with audio and video (AV) products.

"We very often see Bill Gates and key guys from Microsoft," said Ando, adding that he hopes an announcement about interoperability between IT and AV products will be made soon by Sony, Microsoft and others, including chip maker Intel Corp. "We are in discussions, but we are not at the point that we can officially announce anything."

Ando during the keynote briefly showed various new Sony products, including the expected Memory Stick pro, a new Memory Stick storage card developed together with SanDisk Corp. that will be available with a maximum storage capacity of 1G-byte.

Ando also demonstrated a Blu-ray disk device, Sony's successor to the DVD+RW format. Blu-ray offers up to 50G bytes of storage space on one disk compared with 4.7G bytes for DVD+RW (DVD+rewriteable).

While Blu-ray drives will be available for business users of high-definition video soon, consumers will have to wait because DVD+RW is only just taking off, Ando said.

"We have shifted our emphasis to the business-to-business area. Very soon we will announce introduction of Blu-ray onto the Japanese market, but we think the big market for Blu-ray will be late 2004, maybe 2005," he said.