Sony Introducing New PDA Line

Japan’s market for handheld digital organizers will enter a new round on Saturday, when Sony Corp joins the ring with CLIE, a new unit that adds video playback to the usual array of functions.

The launch of the CLIE (which is pronounced “klee-ay” and stands for Communication, Link, Information and Entertainment) takes Sony one step closer toward the integration of its electronics empire.

Sony’s new PDA, or “personal digital assistant” as the digital organizers are increasingly being called, will be able to play video clips and link in to the Internet via cell phones.

“We’re selling a concept,” said Tetsuo Kanno, a Sony spokesman for the new product. “We see the CLIE evolving from a business tool into an entertainment tool.”

Sony’s confidence in its aim to capture a share of the growing PDA market, despite being a late entrant, is partly a reflection of Japan’s well-known enthusiasm for digital gadgets.

Simpler versions of today’s digital personal organizers were being sold more than a decade ago, and the recent explosive growth of Internet-enabled mobile phones has already heralded the arrival of wireless digital organizers.

Snazzy Cell Phones PDA-like

In some ways, PDAs are already competing with Japan’s snazzy cell phones, which already have some of the digital organizer functions built in.

Technology data firm IDC Japan says that handheld computer sales were dampened in 1999 due to brisk growth of Web-connected mobile phones.

IDC Japan says 1.3 million handheld computing devices were sold in Japan in 1999, and that this would more than triple to four million units per year in 2004. By comparison, there are already more than 15 million people logged on to the Internet via their cell phones in Japan.

The market for handheld computers in the United States is estimated at some three million to four million units, followed by Europe’s two million to three million.

Well Connected

The CLIE will pit Sony against other established PDA makers in Japan, which include Palm, Casio Computer Co Ltd, and Sharp Corp

Not to be left behind, Palm’s Japanese unit has plans to introduce a wireless version of its popular Palm Pilot organizer next year, although it wasn’t clear whether this would integrate the wireless function into the device, like the Palm VII.

The CLIE, which comes pre-equipped to connect to the Internet via cell phones, will be sold in two versions. The color-screen version is expected to retail for around 55,000 yen ($525) and the monochrome display model at 50,000 yen.

Although the CLIE’s video function doesn’t include sound, Sony’s Kanno said later generations are likely to include full music and video capability.

That’s the defining strategy for Sony’s efforts to integrate its products into one-stop audiovisual entertainment centers, something it is already pushing hard with efforts focused around its line of VAIO personal computers.

Sony has already proven that it knows how to be a successful late market entrant. After only a few years in the business, Sony now ships the fourth largest number of PCs in Japan, according to the Multimedia Research Institute’s report for April-June.

The CLIE will use Palm Inc’s operating system, and will feature a slot for Sony’s proprietary storage media, the gumstick-sized Memory Stick, which will allow it to swap out more information and import images.

Although the CLIE connects directly to PCs through its docking station, the Memory Stick allows it to exchange information more easily with other Sony products, such as its digital cameras, camcorders and digital audio players.

Sony said it plans to produce 70,000 to 100,000 units of the new PDA per month. Its allotment of online pre-sales sold out almost immediately, it said.