Sony Talks Up Plans for Digital Media Superstore

Many companies would give up their right to right-click to be able to duplicate Apple’s success with iTunes. However, only one actually has the pieces already in place to do that, and its executives announced their intentions Thursday to take on Steve Jobs’ company with its own online content service.

Sony executives used a management meeting in Tokyo to tell the world that they want to build an online network so that all manner of company devices — Bravia TVs, Blu-ray DVD players, Cybershot cameras, Sony Readers, Vaio computers and, of course, the Walkman — can receive downloadable content like movies/videos, games, books and music. The company also said that consumers would be able to upload pictures and videos from Sony cameras for storage on personal online accounts, and that Sony plans to introduce new mobile devices to take advantage of the new service.

Sony executives

Sony execs announce a new online service connecting the whole range of Sony gadgets to downloadable content like movies and games.

Sony didn’t mention a specific launch date, only that it hopes to get the service going in 2010. No prices were mentioned, and there were no details given on whether the service would be an expansion of Sony’s existing Playstation Network — which lets PS3 users download games, movies and TV shows — or would be an entirely new platform.

However, enough was said to get analysts and tech bloggers scrambling for comparisons to Apple and thinking about the potential pitfalls and opportunities for one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics companies, which also just happens to own a movie/TV production studio and a music label.

The Sony Ecosystem

“This is one of the very few companies that actually has something comparable to Apple’s ecosystem,” Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe told the E-Commerce Times. “Apple has a store, they make devices, and they have all the pieces in between except for the pipe, and they don’t own a music company. Sony owns a music company, has devices and they make PCs. They’re one of the few companies that can do a competing soup-to-nuts service. If they can’t do that, then shame on them. That’s the reason they bought Columbia Pictures, that’s the reason for some of their other acquisitions.”

It’s not just Apple that Sony is contending with in the online network space, Howe said. Amazon has grown from selling physical books and other goods to music, movie and book downloads. Sony needs to focus on the same ease-of-use with the network and devices that allow for instant downloads of electronic books via Kindle, or songs via an iPod.

“The big challenge for Sony is that they need to make everyone say, ‘Oh, I should go to Sony instead of Apple or Amazon.’ If they can make that ecosystem as seamless and easy to use as Apple does, then they’ve got a shot,” he explained.

Sony’s Online History and Future

Sony has a checkered past when it comes to previous online network attempts. Sony Connect did not make the connection with consumers. The Sony Reader e-book catalog is currently lacking in titles and comes nowhere near matching Amazon’s Kindle Store and Barnes and Noble’s selections for its Nook device.

Yet Sony has seen success with its PlayStation Network, which company executives said has attracted 33 million users for its catalog of free and paid content. “This dynamic of racing for the living room (with consoles) and the business of creating a unique media hub that serves a lot of music, movies, TV, etc, could be very compelling,” Gartner analyst Mike McGuire told the E-Commerce Times. “On the other hand, for a big part of the consumer base, that kind of behavior isn’t exactly second nature yet. It will be challenging, but that’s where a lot of consumer electronics folks see the growth — in upgrading the living room,” rather than buying a PC every two or three years.

There’s also the question of whether Sony’s proposed online service — which still has no official name yet — will be limited to Sony’s consumer electronic products or will ultimately be device-agnostic.

“What was one of the more important strategic moves Apple made with iTunes? They made that software run on Windows machines,” McGuire said. “If Sony is going to try to be more open with all kinds of MP3 players and computers, there could be a challenge because different manufacturers do different things.”

Sony’s Reader devices support a wider range of e-book formats, which could signal the direction the company wants to go with all this, McGuire said. “Do they want to come up with another set of proprietary protocols to protect content? I don’t think they’re going to do that.”

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