Sony positioned itself to take advantage of the growing popularity and availability of broadband on Wednesday as it launched at CeBIT a slew of digital-music devices and services.
The electronics manufacturer plans to join the music-download market with an electronic-music service called Connect. Sony says it will include more than 300,000 songs from both major and independent labels, costing at least 79p (99 euro cents) each. It will launch in the UK, France and Germany in June.
"With music at the heart of this new consumer experience, we will offer a unique catalogue proposition for each country that includes not only international but also a wealth of local artists," explained Robert Ashcroft, senior vice-president of Sony Network Services Europe. Sony says that there are more than two million Sony devices in Europe that will be compatible with Connect -- it's not immediately clear if songs from the service can be downloaded onto other portable devices.
The music-download market is becoming fiercely competitive, and Sony will have to jostle with everyone from Apple and Virgin to Coca-Cola and Starbucks, as well as the now-legal Napster. It already has the advantage of being one of the Big Five music labels but it appears that Sony's ambitions stretch beyond tunes.
"Music is just the start. Other services will follow to offer users almost unlimited choice of digital content," said Kunitake Ando, president and chief operating officer of Sony.
Ando told a packed press conference that this is a particularly exciting time for the IT industry: the market for digital audio and video content is "exploding" and the take-up of high-speed Internet services is increasing rapidly.
"This is the start of a new broadband convergence," Ando said, adding that the really important changes are taking place at home rather than in the workplace. "Broadband is transforming consumer lifestyles, offering new excitement and enjoyment."
Sony also showed off a music streaming service for mobile-phone users, which has the working title of the "personal media assistant". It will initially launch in Finland in a couple of months, after it has been tested there by TeliaSonera. Sony claims the service will give users a more personalised listening experience than other music streaming services.
"This is a huge revenue opportunity for mobile operators," said Chris Deering, president of Sony Europe, adding that the music service will only work with Symbian-based phones such as the Sony P800 and P900 and Siemens's SX1.
Sony demonstrated that the personal media assistant turns the mobile phone into a portable radio. Users can browse through large numbers of pre-recorded music stations or define their own. They can also tell the service if they like or dislike a particular track or artist, allowing it to learn personal preferences.
Again, Sony says that content from major and independent labels will be available, but didn't reveal any details. It also claims that the service -- whose commercial name will be announced shortly -- will let people discover new artists and bands "without actually owning the music". It will be interesting to see how this proposition is received by a music industry traumatised by the commercial implications of music file-sharing.
On the hardware side, Sony announced a 1Gb Hi-MD minidisc and a Hi-MD Walkman that it says will offer 27 hours of listening from only a single AA battery. The 1Gb disk will be priced at less than 10 euros, and the Walkman will start at 249 euros, Deering said.