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Sony reenters workstation market

The broadcasting powerhouse has left the video and graphics market for others.

    Sony's Broadcasting and Professional Systems division is teaming up with Intergraph in a bid to reenter the workstation market, even as NEC boosts its lineup with faster processors.

    Sony is a powerhouse in broadcasting, supplying everything from professional cameras to video editing equipment, but recently the company has left the market for video and graphics processing to traditional vendors such as Compaq and Silicon Graphics. Later this year, the company will again try to extend its influence.

    Due in the second half of 1998, Sony's first workstations are essentially Intergraph Windows NT-based systems with the Sony label superimposed. The high-powered computers will feature dual Pentium II processors and software from Sony for use in applications such as video editing, DVD authoring, animation, and creating special effects for video and live broadcast events.

    Additionally, the two companies will continue to codevelop hardware and software technologies for use in future Sony-branded products.

    "The world of digital video has made a migration to Windows NT as the 'heart' computer of choice. Sony saw that market was moving this direction and wanted to make sure they were on the front edge of that technology," said Jeff Edson, vice president of digital media at Intergraph.

    Despite Sony's reputation in the broadcasting industry, the company is no shoe-in. Sony entered the U.S. workstation market several years ago with a Unix-based system that competed against offerings from Sun Microsystems, but quickly retreated. The company has not fared much better in the market for consumer PCs, garnering less than two percent of the market, although its Vaio notebooks are gaining in popularity.

    This time, rather than trying a broad-based attack on the workstation market, Sony is focusing on niche markets and hopes to profit by selling PCs that integrate well with its broadcast equipment--a strategy similar to its approach to consumer PCs.

    No pricing was announced.

    In related news, Intergraph announced a new 3D graphics subsystem that it claims will exceed the performance of other Windows NT graphics systems, and many Unix-based systems as well.

    The performance of the Wildcat system in combination with its low cost and expandability could help drive adoption of NT workstations, analysts say.

    Based on industry standard benchmarks, the Wildcat card will offer a minimum of three times the performance of today's best Windows NT graphics systems, according to Jon Peddie, president of Tiburon, California-based Jon Peddie Associates , a consultancy specializing in graphics technology.

    "It will give graphics performance comparable to a Unix-based, $40,000 workstation," Peddie said.

    "This doesn't mean Unix will disappear," he noted. There are still many more applications available for Unix than are available on Windows NT, but "this hardware is going to encourage [developers] to make that move."

    One significant feature, Peddie said, is the ability to add chips and memory to the card to increase performance. Normally, a whole card needs to be replaced in order to attain new levels of performance.

    The demand for high performance graphics technology is accelerating and should speed adoption of Intergraph's Intense 3D Wildcat graphics, according to the company.

    "The 3D market is exploding. The demand for content is happening everywhere," said Intergraph's Edson, who noted that manufacturers such as IBM and Dell are likely to adopt the Wildcat cards.

    Pricing is expected to start at $2,995, with shipments due in December.

    Meanwhile, NEC said it is now offering dual Pentium II-capable workstations. The NEC PowerMate Professional 9000E series will ship with either 350- or 400-MHz Pentium II, 64MB of memory, and graphics technology from Evans & Sutherland. The systems will come out in early August, with prices starting at an estimated $2,800.