Sony Eyes Net Appliance Market

Sony Electronics later this month will ship a new product that it hopes will succeed in a space where competitors have failed.

The device, a net appliance dubbed the e Villa Network Entertainment Center, will hit retail outlets with a suggested price of $500, about the same as 3Com’s failed Audrey net appliance.

The e Villa Web terminal comes with a built-in V.90 modem, and Sony promised that in the near future broadband service would be available through its built-in Ethernet port. Sony has an exclusive deal with EarthLink to provide dial-up connectivity for the device for $21.95 a month under the e Villa online service brand. The subscription offers unlimited access for up to four users, each with their own email address, 10MB of online mail storage, and bookmark, cookie and preference settings. Subscribers can also connect to the Internet through their PCs under the same subscription.

Unlike the Audrey, the e Villa takes a form factor similar to a PC. It comes with a 15-inch (14-inch-viewable), portrait-mode (800 by 1,024-pixel) Trinitron CRT display, which lets surfers view Web pages with one-third less scrolling. It also has a full-sized keyboard, scroll mouse, audio jack and Memory Stick media slot, as well as two USB ports for external printers or Zip drives. Under the hood it combines a National Semiconductor Geode processor and the BeIA operating system, with provision to manage multimedia plug-ins and device drivers for popular sites.

Three buttons on the front of the e Villa take users to the Web, their email boxes or a portal to seven “channels” of information. Nightly updates make information such as movie times, stock quotes, and weather forecasts accessible offline.

Despite high profile flops in the information appliance market — including the Audrey and Netpliance’s i-Opener — a number of analysts remain bearish on the market as a whole. IDC Tuesday released a report claiming that the market will soar from $7 billion last year to $44 billion in 2005. Clearly Sony Electronics wants a part of that action.

But the fine print of IDC’s analysis suggests a different story.

“Moving forward, more established products such as handhelds, iTV-enabled devices, and Internet-capable gaming devices will fuel-inject the information appliances market with high-octane growth,” IDC said. “Together, these products will account for 85 percent of total value of shipments in 2005. Web tablets, Web terminals and email terminals will make up only a very slim portion of the market.”

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