Sony: Touch-Screen Walkman X Is Not A Mini-Computer

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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Reader Comments

anonymous

April 14, 2009 01:49 PM

It's important to keep in mind that what it costs in Japan may not be what it will cost abroad. For one the Japanese version has extra features like a tv tuner, and as noted Sony does better in its domestic market, which means there is likely a higher demand which it can use to increase price to maximize profits.

jimbo

April 14, 2009 03:21 PM

It's too little too late. SOny missed the boat. Now they r trying to play catchup.

Carl

April 14, 2009 04:33 PM

Very nice. I am a big fan of Sony. But it is true that every new portable music player which comes out will undoubtedly be compared to the Ipod.

Win Back Love

Constable Odo

April 14, 2009 09:54 PM

The people in Japan are very different from Westerners. They've been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time. I understand where Sony is coming from. Nothing wrong with high quality video and sound and a bit of internet browsing. I could live with that.

It's just that the next iPhone/iPod Touch will be able to do it all. Plus, I'm a Mac user and have a great iTunes collection of just about everything I need. I already have a PSP, but if I'm able to download literally thousands of apps using an Apple device, my PSP will see little use.

Apple is selling to the greater part of the world and that's who Apple should try to please. Some little island group in the Pacific doesn't mean beans in the grand scheme of things. If they don't like Apple devices, too bad for them.

You put the two of them side by side in America for the same price and see which one gets bought. The iPod Touch will still be the winner even if some of the features aren't better. I don't need noise canceling so toss that out. I definitely want all those fine educational apps and games that the App Store has and so would anyone else. Sony should have had a YouTube app on the PSP a year or two ago, but hell no. What a waste of a great portable device.

Geo Bush

April 14, 2009 11:01 PM

Apple is today what Sony was in the 80's. Sony's been replaced by a much more savvy tech company that continually puts out top-of-class products. Apple's place on top of the portable music device world will be long lived and there will be many that try and fail. Sony's attempt to save face by trying to put out a competitive product is more a deep-seated Japanese tradition of saving face. Younger generations see Sony as a tv/clock radio manufacturer not a cutting-edge consumer electronics company - which growing up through the 80's is quite hard to believe... I loved the walkman. I have an iphone and 3 ipods and wouldn't trade them for anything Sony.

Dikraa

April 15, 2009 02:19 AM

This is just a me-too copy. I would rather have the original Ipod

Anthony

April 15, 2009 04:29 AM

They are many consumers who are looking for alternatives to the iPod touch.The DAP market in Japan is very different than that of America.

sekura

April 15, 2009 08:43 AM

Some people really dislike the way that Apple controls all the media content, and essentially dictates what and how you can have media content. I'm all for Sony challenging the Apple monopoly. I don't want to be part of the hive mind.

theFanboy

April 15, 2009 09:33 AM

digital noise cancel,OLED....really cool!!

John D Child

April 15, 2009 09:34 AM

"Mini-computer"... That's a catchy phase! I bet no one has ever thought of calling a small computer a "mini-computer" before.

mjw149

April 15, 2009 11:03 AM

I don't get it. Why even sell this instead of releasing a touch OLED PSP?

Marco

April 15, 2009 02:34 PM

LOL @ Sekura - guess you weren't around in the 1980's when Sony was the Apple of its day, practically a monopoly on higher-end portable music players, stereos and TVs. They completely dominated consumer electronics for a very long time.

Guess Sony didn't learn their lesson yet though - Apple killed them by turning all that stuff into "mini-computers". If a device has a CPU and screen, it's a computer, and if Sony's too lazy to put any good software on top of that, then Apple will continue to reign supreme.

Heck, with the App Store, Apple doesn't even have to write all the software themselves anymore. Unless Sony throws a lot of money behind starting up a developer program, they seem destined to be several steps behind for many more years.

S. Simon

April 16, 2009 08:11 PM

I'm amazed that they would price this gimmick at $400-500. Perhaps they imagine that we don't have to eat or pay rent...

Rodrigo G.

April 18, 2009 01:42 PM

If we buy the new walkman here in the states and take it to japan. Will the features that japan offers for the new walkman work with the walkman from the states.

James

April 18, 2009 09:05 PM

I'm amazed at the negative response for this device here but then remembered that it is an American site!

Typical narrow minded US audience! Tbh this player isn't aimed at the US market but more the Asian and Euro one and I predict it will see pretty good business.

I certainly believe that this player won't drastically shift Apples strangle hold on the music player market But it's the first mainstream one to really step up to the plate. Sony will be able to build on this, mark my words..

John

April 20, 2009 12:36 AM

Seems like a good product. Glad someone else is putting a product in the market. Hopefully they will get a decent share of the PMP market. I like the dedicated buttons, noise cancelling and the screen.

I have never understood the appeal of iTunes, I do not find it easy to use and the fact that your music is coupled to it is extremely annoying (I know they are getting rid of DRM, but still...) My CD player didn't eat my CDs.

@Geo Bush
"Younger generations see Sony as a tv/clock radio manufacturer not a cutting-edge consumer electronics company"

Sony makes the PS3, Blu-ray and the 70" Bravia, seems like they are close cutting edge, but perhaps I am missing something?

Tony

April 21, 2009 06:10 AM

When it comes to apps iPhone, iPod Touch obviously come out ahead....but the Sony absolutely dominates the nano.

"I'm amazed that they would price this gimmick at $400-500. Perhaps they imagine that we don't have to eat or pay rent..."

Yet people gladly dish out all kinds of cash for apple?

Wesley

April 24, 2009 06:07 AM

I'm glad that Sony is getting its act together in th MP3 market and making an player that has a nae you can actually rememner. It seems like Sony has always forgotten to market its players over here in Europe and instead focused on the its walkman phones.

I've never understood that since Walkman was the original portable music superbrand. I hope Sony markets this well and sells it for a reasonable price so there is a visible alternative to rival the cult of the iPod lol.

Anna

April 25, 2009 02:19 AM

I don't mind paying a premium for an excellent video/music player. I don't need a bunch of extras - that's what my laptop is for!

Oscar

April 27, 2009 12:07 PM

to be honest ipod user's are crowd followers and just think there good because they don't know about any other competitors so they buy an ipod. Walkman's have outstanding sound quality and this one looks great to, i just think people are hooked on ipods and wont buy walkman.

Sarah

April 30, 2009 06:42 AM

ipods are wayy over-rated!!! im getting me one of these for sure =]

Kat

May 2, 2009 11:44 PM

Sony are clearly trying to catch up to Apple. Apple is the leading company in terms of music players and it's too late for Sony to catch up. Nice to see them trying but their ideas just can't match up to those of Apples. I'm sticking with my iPod Touch..x

bmyles

May 11, 2009 07:48 PM

everyone who states that ipod is a cult, crowd follower, etc must have never tried a ipod touch or iphone. i used to be a sony fanboy somewhat and loved their products, but after the psp started failing in features i saw the ipod touch with this huge app store and cooler features, i hopped on and didnt regret it yet. It has features that psp users have been wanting for years, youtube, apps, better webbrowser, real rss, and own apps for it. but all sony did was constantly lock it from hackers something apple isnt too concerned about, and ipod touch definitely blows this out the water, what does this has to offer that apple doesnt? oled screen (looks great, but not worth switching),buttons on side (touchscreen is fine with me), and no app store (biggest disappointment), sony had a opportunity, now they are playing catch up

Jeff

May 12, 2009 12:03 PM

To sit and bash either Sony or Apple is ignorant. Sony is courting audiophiles who want their music the best it can be. And Apple is working toward a wide swath of the public, not a niche. I had many many Ipods, but have recently moved to Sony. I don't need apps, I need a player for my 170 gig collection of music. Others want to be entertained, so the Itouch is perfect for them. I personally think that the Walkman sound is much better than the ipod, but that is my opinion, others have theirs. Enjoy either, and remember, both of these companies will continue to push the other to better products! As consumers, we could not have a better situation.

Charles

August 26, 2009 03:24 PM

I´ve read that this new Sony walkman has a very limitated web browser, wich makes it a bit annoying when it comes to surf the web. Personally, I´m a Sony walkman fan, I tried other music players (including ipod and ipod touch) and the sound quality and special related features that walkman provides have no match at all. Plus, the noise cancelling function should be great. When it comes to sound and image quality, Sony is the best choice, plus you can just drag and drop your files in the "content transfer" window and the player does the rest. I´m sure that the apps for the ipod touch are great and everyone can easily fall in love with that. So, if we look carefully, we have very interesting things on each (walkman x and ipod touch) devices. Too bad for the Walkman price, I think is a little too high. Maybe if Sony would have made a better web browser an a few "toys" and the choice to download apps, definitelly would have be "the real Ipod touch killer".

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BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.

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