Sony looks back at ten years of Vaio

Vaio has been a great success for Sony, proving a consumer electronics maker can foot it in the fast-changing computer market.

Ten years ago this week Sony launched its first Vaio laptop computers. The PCG-705 and 707 went on sale in Japan on July 1 and were followed quickly by a desktop PC, as Sony tried to show the world that a consumer electronics company could make computers. Many homes in Japan didn't have a PC at the time. They relied instead on dedicated word processing machines that fell somewhere between electric typewriters and laptop computers. But the launch of Windows 95 helped expand the PC market in Japan, in part by offering an interface more friendly to Japanese users. With its first laptops under its belt, and a desktop that had been on sale in the US for a year, it wasn't long before Sony had its first computing hit: the PCG-505 laptop. The 505 launched in Japan on Nov. 20, 1997, and was 2.4 centimetres thick, which at the time made it "ultra-thin." It had a 10.4-inch screen and a 133MHz Pentium MMX processor and was priced at about $650. Its slender design, in silver and lilac, attracted much attention and helped to distinguish its laptops for several years. "After probably five years we had a little bit of a struggle because competitors were catching up," Bob Ishida, president of Sony's Vaio business group, recalled in an interview last week. "We were struggling with how to further differentiate our products so we focused on some of the basic concepts that we had since we started our Vaio business." One key element of Vaio notebooks, reflecting Sony's experience in consumer electronics, has been attention to multimedia. Sony was quick to adopt the IEEE1394 interface, for transferring data quickly from cameras and other devices, and a prime feature of its first desktop for Japan was a hardware MPEG encoder -- something unusual at the time. Sony was also one of the first to try and push PCs into the living room, and scored a big hit in 2002 with the Vaio W. The main body of the machine was built behind the flat-panel monitor, and its keyboard folded up over the lower half of the screen. That meant the computer took up little more space than a laptop when not in use. The Vaio W proved such a hit in Japan that shops had waiting lists for them and Sony cancelled TV commercials to cool demand until its manufacturing could catch up. The Vaio's success has been significant because it showed that a consumer electronics brand could enjoy success in the PC market -- a feat that computer makers have tried to achieve in reverse but without the same success. The challenge ahead for Sony will be to see if its strengths in computing and consumer electronics can help it remain a significant player in the digital home. That will depend partly on the reception for the TP1, a "living room" PC intended to sit alongside a television. It was introduced earlier this year and is circular, about the size of a hat box, and works with a wireless keyboard and remote control. It includes digital video recording and users can search through the subtitle information to find particular scenes, such as the mention of a football match in a news program. Ishida predicts big changes for the home PC market over the next 10 years. "A lot of people are using a PC for the internet, but at the same time the younger generation, like my son who is just 12 years old, isn't using a lot of PCs but using cellphones," he said. Sony has stopped selling its Vaio desktop PCs but its laptops should remain strong, according to Ishida, in part because they are widely used in the business world. But in the home, look for devices like the TP1 that merge computing with consumer electronics. "By making the PC much easier for the customer to use there's going to be less and less boundary between the product categories. PCs and consumer electronics products are getting closer and connectivity among those products is going to be more important," he said. Asked what people might see more of in the future, Ishida cited the WA1, a Vaio home audio device that receives music streamed via Wi-Fi from other devices on a home network.

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Martyn Williams

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