Posted by: Kenji Hall on April 14, 2009
One of the first questions for Sony officials whenever the electronics and entertainment company pulls the wraps off a new Walkman is: How does it differ from Apple’s iPod?
At a news conference in Tokyo to showcase the new touch-screen Walkman X-series, one Sony marketing manager, Atsushi Noda, offered an answer. “The Walkman is not supposed to be a PDA or a mini-computer,” he said. “It’s a music and video player.”
That distinction isn’t an obvious one. The Walkman X is Sony’s latest attempt to close the gap with Apple in digital media players. In many ways it’s Sony’s best Walkman product in years.
The scrolling menus that respond to the flick of a finger and then slow down resemble the iPod Touch (and iPhone). It’s a cinch to switch between music, photos, downloaded videos, radio stations and network TV channels (a Japan-only feature). And if there’s a Wi-Fi connection, you can browse the Internet, watch YouTube videos, or download podcasts. The 3-inch organic electroluminscent display has stunning resolution (but isn’t made by Sony) and the stereo sound beats any portable device I’ve tested so far.
But will consumers spend between $400 and $500 during one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory? It’s hard to say. Sony officials refuse to offer any sales targets. The Walkman X—in 16-gigabyte and 32-gigabyte versions—will go on sale in Japan on April 25. Gauging demand by keeping track of how Japanese consumers respond probably won’t do you much good since the Walkman has typically done better at home than in other countries. The real test for the Walkman will come in summer, when it’s likely to be released in the U.S. and Europe.
Sony’s marketing staff took pains to stress it did its homework. During his presentation, Noda explained that the company had polled consumers, asking what features they would be willing to pay extra for and what they could do without. The two features that they wanted: digitally amplified stereo sound and technology that blocks outside noise. They weren’t willing to pay for things like videogames, ringtones, a clock, a TV and downloadable songs over a Wi-Fi connection.
I can appreciate that Sony went out of its way to please audiophiles and finicky consumers who want high-definition videos on a portable gizmo. Rather than doing everything, the new Walkman does a few things a lot better than the iPod. But to say that the Walkman shouldn't be compared to the iPod is a bit silly.
Why wouldn't Sony try to lure away iPod users? To do so, the new Walkman, which relies on Microsoft's Windows software, will have to be easy to use. (It's not clear to me whether iPod users will be able to convert all their files on iTunes so they can be played on the Walkman, though you could do it in the past.) In the few minutes I tried the gizmo, it seemed intuitive. Gone is the much-maligned SonicStage software for managing Walkman files on a PC.
But there isn't an iTunes-like file-managing system or the assortment of downloadable games and other applications (Apps) for iPod Touch and iPhone users, either. There's no motion-sensing accelerometer for games since you can't play games on it.
The lack of games was an odd choice given Sony's pledge to make its devices interconnected and CEO Howard Stringer's decision to put the Walkman team inside the newly created Networked Services and Products Group headed by former videogame chief Kazuo Hirai. When I asked product planner Kosuke Nakai about games, he shifted nervously and gave me a short answer: "It doesn't do that now."
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