Sony President and Chief Executive Officer Nobuyuki Idei, delivering a keynote address at Comdex, outlined his company's vision of a networked future, unveiled several never-before-seen prototypes and delivered a warning to US companies wanting to play a part in the future networked world.
After acknowledging the lead of American companies in the personal computer industry, Idei said, "The US is under the false impression that it is the leader in mobile communications and non-PC devices. Europe and Japan have a considerable lead over the US and this gap could widen in the future."
Noting the plans of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) to provide a fiber-to-the-curb network nationwide in Japan by 2005, Idei added Japan could jump ahead of the U.S. in the broadband sector and asserted, "In the non-PC market, Japan is leading and Sony is the clear leader."
Earlier in his speech, Idei outlined the three avenues Sony is looking to as key entry points into this network-centric world -- namely the Vaio line of personal computers, digital television, set-top boxes and the PlayStation 2 entertainment console.
Idei likened the recent explosion in use of the Internet and the effect it is having on the conventional economy to the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs. He said broadband technology was a fast- approaching meteorite that could kill current-generation digital systems unless they adapt.
"What we are and will be is a broadband entertainment company," said Idei.
The star-studded keynote moved into Idei's first focus -- the world of digital audio -- with a performance by Epic recording artist and world-famous guitarist Steve Vai. After a silent audience listened to him play, Vai produced one of Sony's new MemoryStick memory cards that held a digital copy of the piece he had performed. The memory card, which is no larger than a piece of gum, was slipped into Sony's soon-to-be-launched MemoryStick Walkman and played straight back to the audience by Howard Stringer, chairman and chief executive officer of Sony of America.
Determined to impress the audience further, Idei produced the Vaio MusicClip, a pen-size digital audio player that the company unveiled at Comdex today, and played back an equally high-quality music clip.
Idei was not finished yet, however.
He reached further into his jacket and produced the first of two prototypes that were unveiled for the first time at the keynote. The "Audio on Silicon" player is a complete digital audio player no larger than the MemoryStick memory card system the company is using in its MemoryStick Walkman.
Boasting the same slim measurements as the MemoryStick -- 21.4 millimeters long by 50 mm wide by 3.5 mm thick -- the device includes 160M bytes of memory and an LSI (large scale integrated circuit) chip that processes stored music and enables it to be enjoyed by simply attaching a pair of headphones.
Moving along to the world of video, Idei introduced Sun Microsystem's co-founder and chief scientist, Bill Joy, who was on hand to introduce the company's new MiniDisc Discam. The handheld digital video recorder substitutes a digital video tape for an "MD Data 2" disc -- a new 650Mb version of the MiniDisc designed for data applications. The camera includes nonlinear editing system software in the camera and an Ethernet interface for connection to a personal computer. The camera will be launched in January 2000 in the U.S. and the MD Data 2 disc is large enough to hold around 20 minutes of video, or 4,500 still images.
Joy demonstrated the editing system and other functions of the camera, which are based on Sun's P-Java operating system, and said there was no reason why such a device should not be an access device for a digital network. "There is no center to the network; it's not just the PC. It depends on what you are doing," he said.
Joy also said the US faced a hurdle in the wireless arena because of the lack of a standardized digital network, unlike those that already exist nationwide in Japan and Europe.
Another surprise from Idei also came in the same shape and size as the MemoryStick. The InfoStick is a wireless adapter compatible with Bluetooth, a specification for wireless connectivity backed by a wide range of manufacturers. By plugging the device into any MemoryStick-compatible product, the InfoStick will immediately give it Bluetooth compatibility. When commercialized, this could immediately widen Bluetooth to the family of MemoryStick-compliant devices on the market, such as Vaio notebook computers and digital still cameras, and devices yet to be launched. Idei said the device will ship in late 2000.
For many, the highlight of the keynote came not when Idei introduced new technology but when he brought out filmmaker George Lucas. Describing himself as "playing hooky from writing Star Wars Episode 2," Lucas talked about a just-developed digital high-definition movie camera from Sony and revealed the new Star Wars movie will be entirely produced and delivered in digital form. Noting the new digital camera would enable him to "finally catch up with the amateur consumer market," Lucas summed up his enthusiasm for the new technology thus: "This is it. This is the revolution, and I'm in the middle of it. It's a great time to be alive."
The keynote also gave many attendees their first chance to see PlayStation 2: the company's new home entertainment console and one of its three main routes to the networked world. The device, due for launch on March 4, 2000, in Japan, will not only play computer games at a better quality than Sony's current PlayStation but also offer the ability to play DVDs (digital versatile discs) and access the Internet and broadband networks.
Kazuo Hirai, the president and chief executive officer of Sony Computer Entertainment America, introduced the system and explained that, far beyond gaming, he saw the device as an access device for electronic distribution of digital content. Initially this will include PlayStation 2 games but could also be expanded to, "music, motion pictures and new forms of entertainment not yet developed."
For many leaving the keynote, the guest appearance by Lucas and the PlayStation 2 demo were the highlights.
"I thought the whole presentation was excellent. Just the fact that Lucas came on stage was impressive," said Timothy Strachan, sales manager at Sydney-based Total Peripherals Pty. Ltd.
"Having been in the industry for 13 years, it's great to see Sony bring a game machine like the PlayStation 2 into the world of computing," said Strachan.
But while some, like Strachan, readily grasped the way the PlayStation 2 blurred the boundary between gaming, home entertainment and network access devices, Sony's big task now is to educate the general public that the device is much more than just a game console. Success here could drive the device into homes in the same way the original PlayStation vastly expanded the market for game machines beyond the traditional buyers.
Sony, in Tokyo, can be found on the Web at http://www.sony.co.jp.
(Terho Uimonen contributed to this story.)