I was only half joking during a call yesterday with Sony’s Mike Abary when I said that we should expect a touchscreen VAIO by the holidays, complete with Sony’s Xross Media Bar interface and one-touch access to PlaysStation movies and TV, casual games, and books from Sony’s eBook store. Why shouldn’t Sony’s customers expect this sort of integration? The good news is that Abary, who is senior vice president of Sony’s Information Technology Products Division, is serious about making most of the above a reality. The bad news is that it won’t all happen at once, and in the meantime consumers will continue to question whether it’s worth paying hefty premiums for products like the upcoming Sony VAIO W. Here are the highlights of our wide-ranging interview.
With the VAIO P Sony was pretty adamant about not entering the netbook market. Why did you change your mind with the VAIO W? With the P series we wanted to come out with something that was a different class of product and more geared at lifestyle. With the W we think the category is now legitimate. In U.S. retail, it is greater than 15 percent of the total market share. And we believe that because of its rapid emergence, sustaining marketshare, and because we are a Windows based PC manufacturer we should make offerings that the consumers are looking for. Our attitude is, if consumers are looking for a netbook then why not offer it. Do you think consumers will want to buy the VAIO W, though, given that it’s $100 more than most netbooks? That question is asking a greater broader question about Sony’s competitiveness in the marketplace, and doesn’t have to do exactly with netbooks. I’ll acknowledge we have had those issues across the board on all of our products and there has been a paradigm shift in the marketplace that has rendered Sony products to be seconded guessed in terms of its competitiveness by consumers. It means we have to do a better job of being relevantly competitive in terms of price points, but it doesn’t mean we are going to abandon our position in the marketplace. How is the VAIO W Series being positioned then? Our position is very much an entertainment centric one. The customer expects to get the best media experience – audio and visual – with Sony’s laptops. This is the case with the W Series. We concentrated on the screen with a higher resolution and we focused on our pillar of design. We focused on the ergonomics of the keyboard and consistency. But at $499 one would expect to get a six-cell battery to put your netbook in line with the competition. Why were you not able to include that at launch? What is happening in the PC industry right now is that the development cycles have accelerated extremely rapidly. At the point in time when we were working on the VAIO W Series the price points of netbooks were fairly stable, and during the development cycle time when we were going towards mass production the average selling points declined and the specs increased. We want to make sure we are competitive in regards to the battery. We want to match the competition and we will respond to that very quickly. Although the HD display is a differentiator, there’s not much a netbook can do with HD content because of their limited horsepower. What’s the appeal? We wanted to be consistent with the VAIO portfolio in terms of the entertainment aspect. The HD display and the screen resolution is doing that and remaining consistent with our entertainment heritage. Does that mean that because it’s a higher res. you can do HD streaming? There is a possibility people will think that, but we don’t expect it to be a primary activity for a consumer on an netbook. We do know that when people view images on this netbook they will be sharper and better looking. In regards to the fonts being smaller, we have a zooming utility. So given what Howard Stringer has been saying about breaking down internal silos across Sony, wouldn’t this be a great opportunity for you to offer some sort of integration with the PlayStaion movie and TV service? We are absolutely talking about that internally. The PlayStation network is growing. We believe that network will have an option with VAIO PCs or any PCs for that matter. What we are trying to do is collaborate with our peers at PlayStation in that regard. Would the PlayStation Network on VAIOs include games as well? That is a possibility but we are concentrated more on movies and TV content. We find casual gaming to be interesting for PCs and we are driving right now to establish our role in that area. We believe this segment of end user of causal gaming is growing we can address that marketplace in a way that is unique on VAIOs. Is there any similar collaboration going on with the Sony Reader team? There was a reorganization that occurred at Sony where PlayStation, VAIO, Walkman, and Reader came under the same electronics group. As such, with those categories being put together under one umbrella we need to collaborate. I also see a better integration of Reader with VAIO products. Will you be launching any touchscreen notebooks this year? There are certain things that will be native on Windows 7 that we are certainly going to take advantage of. Without giving too much away, we think touch on Windows 7 is something we find compelling and we will certainly introduce touch into some of our products at the launch of Win 7. You will see touch capabilities introduced on VAIO products that take advantage of Windows 7. So Holiday 2009 we are going to see a touch enabled VAIO with a crossbar media interface that allows you to tap into the Playstation network and access the Sony eBook store? [Laughs.] You are going to see VAIO products that take advantage of already announced touch capabilities in Windows 7. You are also going to see more collaboration between the groups within Sony. So getting back to netbooks, what do you think of Nvidia Ion? I think it’s an interesting technology. Nvidia is a partner of ours and we are looking at all of their technology roadmap. With netbooks it’s interesting because my perspective is that netbooks have taken us backwards in the overall industry. When you talk about Ion on netbooks it is towards that notion that we are getting better, stronger, faster on netbooks though we have already gone through that in terms of technology in the PC industry once before. On the other hand you have Intel pushing its ULV processors. Does that platform have a place in Sony’s VAIO lineup? Though the technology is being introduced it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be a success. Our whole target has been to go after the highly mobile customer with our ultraportable machines; those are the people traveling with their PCs, but its our opinion that those people need more robustness in those products. But the paradigm shifted very quickly, especially with the economy. It doesn’t mean products like the TT won’t survive, we just have to adapt. Sony is surely looking more towards the mobile professionals wanting to have an ultraportable solution but get it to a price point that is more reasonable. What is your take on the new smartbook category and will Sony look to play in that space as well? If it is in a clamshell form factor then there is an expectation that this device is a notebook. I don’t care if its called a smartbook; the consumer will expect the same experience they get on a netbook or notebook. I don’t know what smartbook means. If you don’t duplicate the same experience on smartbooks then it won’t sell. Sony was one of the first to integrate wireless WAN technology and it continues to be an important feature across our notebooks. We will continue to provide, however, the full PC experience in a clamshell device.