Sony launches Net access device
By George A. Chidi Jr.
(IDG) -- Sony Electronics officially launched the eVilla Network Entertainment Center on Thursday, a stripped-down computer built specifically for Internet access and plans to ship the $500 appliance for the consumer market by month's end.
In January, Sony debuted the eVilla at the Consumer Electronics Show, saying then the machine would be out in April. The launch has been delayed twice, first to May and then to Thursday, to finalize partnership agreements with content providers, according to Rob Bartels, Sony Electronics general manager for product development who is overseeing the launch. Sony also wanted to iron out some "software and hardware integration issues" related to new features added since eVilla's unveiling in January, he said.
Other vendors have been bailing out of the Internet appliance market. 3Com discontinued its Audrey device in March after six months on the market, Netpliance announced in November that it would stop selling its I-opener product, Virgin Entertainment Group's Webplayer lasted less than three months and Gateway is "rethinking" its Net appliance strategy.
Sony seems to be counting on the power of its brand name in consumer electronics to carry the day where others have failed. "Sony, the brand itself, offers consumers a certain credibility," Bartels said. "Unlike those other products, we offer a compelling package of hardware, software and service."
The eVilla features a 15-inch Trinitron flat cathode-ray tube screen, turned on its end to present a better view of Web pages for scrolling. The unit uses a GOGX-1 processor chip from National Semiconductor, rated at 266Mhz, although its performance is better in an eVilla than its clock speed would indicate, Bartels said. "We find that [the processor] is more than sufficient for watching streaming video on the Internet," he said. The eVilla carries 64M bytes of DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory).
Along with stereo speakers, a standard keyboard and a mouse, the eVilla has two USB (universal serial bus) ports and a Memory Stick flash memory card reader. The USB ports do not offer the universal access to peripheral devices one might expect, however. In order to plug a device in, drivers must be installed on the appliance. While the eVilla has drivers for Iomega Zip drives pre-installed, there are no drivers for devices that compete with Sony's Memory Stick, like SmartMedia or CompactFlash cards.
Sony would consider offering drivers in an online update of the appliance's software, "if we see the user base," in the future, Bartels said.
Device drivers for the eVilla are developed only with companies working closely with Sony because the eVilla doesn't use Microsoft's Windows operating system or Internet Explorer browser, nor is it compatible with Windows Media files. The unit uses Be's BeIA operating system and uses the Opera Web browser from Opera Software, and will play multimedia content delivered in RealNetworks' Real format.
Sony would consider adding Windows Media functionality for the future, but wanted partnerships aimed at "the leading format" for music now, Bartels said.
Sony's reliance on keeping rivals out could hamper adoption of the eVilla, an analyst said.
"Sony is all about consumer devices, but they're all about Sony consumer devices," said Milosz Skrzypczak, an analyst for market research company Yankee Group. "It's pure Sony, it looks nice, it feels nice ... but hands down, they lose when compared with PCs."
For example, in order to connect to the Internet with an eVilla, a user must sign on to an EarthLink account, billed at $21.95 a month. The device cannot currently connect with another service provider, even though it has a built-in Ethernet port for future broadband access. But Sony is marketing the eVilla to consumers who already own PCs as a second option for Internet access.
"Why would they want to buy another PC -- it's a hassle. Having to download plug-ins, having to download content versus having content pushed to you," Bartels said. "Our research shows that people want a guided experience on the Internet."
However, households that already have existing Internet service accounts might be unlikely to give those up to switch to EarthLink, Skrzypczak suggested.
Sony touted the ability of the eVilla to automatically download content overnight from its Web site partners, offering an "aggregated, preselected content package" of news, sports and weather information along with e-mail to users without tying up a phone line.
To truly surf the Internet, to send and receive instant messages (a capability the eVilla does not yet have) or to download streaming media content, a user still has to dial in to EarthLink. While users can personalize the downloaded news to an extent, they can only do so from one of Sony's partner sites. Those do not include the sites popular with surfers today -- sites owned by AOL Time Warner, Yahoo, Microsoft and Napster.
"There are a lot of Web sites out there that are so large, it would tie up the phone line for hours and hours," Bartels said to explain the restrictions on personalized content.
While users can install filtering and blocking software to prevent children from viewing unauthorized Web pages on a full-function PC, eVilla users have no such option because there's no way for the owner to install software. The only ways to store data on the eVilla are on its onboard memory, with a Memory Stick, a Zip disk or in the 10M bytes of online memory available for e-mail. Sony also is in a partnership that provides online storage for images.
Sony would consider adding online storage and Web filtering software in the future, Bartels said.
At $500, however, a consumer could buy a 600MHz PC with a monitor, software and a big hard drive. The falling prices of PCs has pushed aside the market for Internet appliances.
"This particular segment hasn't done well," Skrzypczak said of Net appliances.
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