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Sony Goes Prime-Time with ‘LocationFree TV’

March 31, 2006

TOKYO — Sony’s dream of freeing TV from the confines of the living room is looking more like reality with a gadget that allows you to watch local broadcasts on a PC even if you are thousands of miles from home.

Imagine checking out your local news channel during an international flight or enjoying your favorite baseball team live while on a business trip in Dubai.

Sony Corp. is notching up strong sales of a small black box that can do just that, providing that the airplane is Wi-Fi enabled and your hotel in Dubai has a broadband connection.

The book-sized device plugs into your home TV antenna, converts the signal to the MPEG-4 digital standard, encrypts it for security and streams it over the Internet to your PC.

It also works with Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld video game device and compatible mobile phones will be out soon.

“I want to put it into any electronics device that has communications ability and a display,” Satoru Maeda, head of Sony’s “LocationFree TV” business, said in an interview.

This is not Sony’s first try at what the industry calls “place-shifting TV.” Over five years ago, Sony launched the Airboard — a wireless flat screen device designed to be carried around the house to view television or the Web.

But it failed to gain much traction with consumers, who were excited about the idea but not happy about paying more than 100,000 yen ($852.20) for the device.

Sony’s new LocationFree Base Station, which retails for about 32,000 yen ($272.70) in Japan, including proprietary software, seems to have struck a sweet spot.

It is a hit with Japanese men in their 30′s and 40′s, especially those stationed overseas who want to watch their favorite programing from Japan. The gadget can also be hooked up to a DVD recorder, allowing for viewing of prerecorded shows.

“People come into the store asking for the product by name. It practically sells itself,” said a salesman at a major retailer in Tokyo’s famous Akihabara electronics district.

LICENSE TO SELL

Location Free TV has the full backing of chief executive Howard Stringer, which created a buzz around the technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas by showing how the PSP can show live television from anywhere in the world.

Sony currently sells the base station in Japan, the United States, Canada, Taiwan and South Korea, and plans to launch it in Europe later this year. It is aiming for global sales to clear 100,000 units in the business year ending on Friday.

Maeda said he expected sales to at least double in each of the next few years, but that Sony would actively look to license its technology to other electronics and software makers as a source of income and to ensure that the industry grows.

Earlier this week, Sony announced that it would license its location free software for Windows Mobile and cellphones to Japan’s Access Co. Ltd., aiming to encourage the development of compatible mobile phones.

“We cannot develop this market on our own,” Maeda said.

Sony only has a handful of competitors, the main one being U.S.-based Sling Media Inc., but several new players are expected to pile into the market, which should boost competition and drive prices down.

Maeda said Sony’s main advantage was its prime mover status and the fact that it held many key patents on the technology.

Still, he acknowledged there were hurdles to overcome.

In a demonstration of the technology at Sony’s office, the quality of the picture on the PC was noticeably below regular TV viewing, while the picture on the PSP was very sharp and clear.

But indications are that many consumers don’t care if the picture is perfect or not.

“People seem to be satisfied even if the picture quality is not great. They are just happy if they can see what they want even if they aren’t at home,” the Akihabara salesman said.




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