CES 2006: Sony’s Sir Howard Stringer spotlights new Walkman, while skirting past DRM, PS3

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CES 2006: Sony's Sir Howard Stringer spotlights new Walkman, while skirting past DRM, PS3

Las Vegas (NV) – With the help of celebrities such as the Oscar-winning celebrities behind the upcoming film “The DaVinci Code,” including director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks, Sony chairman and CEO Sir Howard Stringer outlined this morning his vision for a refocused and re-energized corporation. But the attendees at CES 2006 were probably more interested in hearing the company’s plans for Blu-ray high-definition players and content, the company’s new Walkman phone, and a little thing called the PlayStation 3.

But there was no news announced today by Sir Howard, despite what had been anticipated by many in the gaming press. Instead, attendees who are interested in such things as pillars, or who collect pillars as a hobby or just for their own amusement, were delighted to learn that the PS3 is “a key pillar of Sony’s 2006 growth strategy.” He did show off a PS3, which appeared no different than previously seen prototypes, but this time showing previews of new PS3 versions of Gran Turismo 5 and F1 Grand Prix. Sir Howard confirmed the new system would indeed be able to play existing games for PS2 and PS1 models – though not PlayStation Portable – as well as existing audio CDs and DVDs.

Referring to his company’s investment in what he called “a very long lifecycle” for PS3, Sir Howard noted that Sony had thus far spent billions (plural) in the Cell processor, the next generation of IBM’s PowerPC CPU. He added up to 4,000 test systems had been shipped to PS3 game and software developers worldwide. But interestingly, he added that the PS3 would be “much more of an entertainment device than the Xbox 360,” lending credence to reports that Sony will be using the PS3 console to premiere the Blu-ray platform.

Sir Howard added that PS3 users will have “access to tens of thousands of other pieces of content,” presumably besides games.

To demonstrate his own company’s continued support of Sony’s Blu-ray, Dell Computer chairman Michael Dell appeared briefly on stage during the Stringer keynote. But this time, Mr. Dell refrained from his usual course of attacking the rival HD DVD platform, instead concentrating on the fact that Blu-ray will have “lots of exciting content available,” making reference to Sony Pictures’ announcement yesterday of 20 new movie titles to be published on Blu-ray Disc. Mr. Dell added his company will be announcing five new products which include Blu-ray, though declined to add specifics.

From what was said on-stage during the Stringer keynote about the mandatory part of “mandatory managed copy,” it still isn’t clear what part will be mandatory, or who will be doing the managing. Copies can apparently be made by consumers of selected Blu-ray content, though it isn’t known through what process, or whether those copies will be of full quality. What makes the issue even more confusing is the fact that the first consumer-level Blu-ray consoles, from what we’re seeing at CES thus far, may not have write, or burn, capability anyway. Orders for those first consoles, he said, will be taken beginning in March.

With the Sony name tied up in knots over the recent Sony BMG / First4Internet stealth driver fiasco, it’s easy to see why Sir Howard avoided all mention of the subject of digital rights management, even when it pertains to Blu-ray. In perhaps one of his most cryptic, yet somehow telling, comments of the entire address, he said, “Sometimes we misunderstand each other, but that’s a concept of marriage.” He did not elaborate, though he may have been referring to the joint venture between Sony and Bertelsmann Music Group. Later, however, with regard to the topic of the bumpy road his company and others have traveled this past year on the road to a still uncertain standard, Sir Howard did remark, “We’re learning.”

Speaking about his existing game consoles, Sir Howard stated that about 10 million PlayStation Portable units have been shipped so far worldwide, and noted that PSP’s holiday sales figures eclipsed those of Microsoft’s Xbox 360. (The latter is not a portable console, but the figure still stands.) During the keynote, he demonstrated the company’s already announced, potential SlingBox rival device called “Location Free” – a silver, set-top box that connects to your home TV, and enables your PSP to serve as a remote television via your wireless LAN connection.

Joining Sir Howard on stage, Sony Computer Entertainment division president Kaz Hirai announced that over 100 million PlayStation 2 consoles have been shipped worldwide to date, with shipments in 2005 having increased by 10.5% over figures for 2004.

In a development shrouded by other topics, but which may later command the spotlight on its own, Sir Howard showed off Sony Ericsson’s new model W810 Walkman phone, in a move apparently intended to reinvigorate the recently dormant Walkman brand. The device will apparently allow users to download music from MP3 services directly into the phone, bypassing the PC, in a move obviously designed to one-up Motorola’s ROKR phone with iTunes. Sir Howard did not go into specifics about the download service itself, though it’s widely expected that Sony will provide one for the phone on its own. He also briefly pulled out his company’s latest prototype for the Sony Reader device, about the size of a pocketbook, which will be available this spring. No word as to what users will be expected to read on this device.

Finally, in the all-important field of pillars, Sir Howard touted these last devices as comprising one of Sony’s new four corporate pillars, its title being e-entertainment. (Scholars would remind the chairman that the prefix “e-” comes from the Greek meaning “to take away,” as in “evaporate” and “emasculate.”) He focused on the importance of this pillar symbolizing personalization and consumer choice, although perhaps the company’s choice of prefixes, “i-“, had already been claimed by a competitor.

The e-entertainment pillar joins the company’s other three, which consist of digital cinema (thus the appearance by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks), the so-called high-er definition pillar (which, if misread, sounds like someone forgetting, er, what to say), and finally the euphemism-free PlayStation 3 pillar, which is apparently downwardly compatible with its predecessors.

Exclusive coverage of CES 2006 continues throughout the day, from TG Daily and the network of TG Publishing.

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