Sony merges wireless Web-surfing pad with TV

The consumer electronics giant announces the Airboard, a wireless Web-surfing device and television that also acts as a remote control for DVD players and stereos.

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Sony today unveiled a wireless Web-surfing device that also acts as a television, signaling that momentum is finally building for the long-awaited devices known as Web pads.

The Airboard, which will be available in Japan on Dec. 1, consists of a portable LCD display that locks into a base station with a TV antenna and wireless modem. The device also acts as a remote control for other household electronics, such as a CD player or DVD player, that have been plugged into the base station.

The 10-inch LCD display is a touch screen, on which owners can navigate the Web and send emails.

The Airboard will allow "picture-in-picture" simultaneous viewing of both Internet and TV content, Sony said. The Airboard can also act as a display, showing digital images, such as photographs, stored on a Sony Memory Stick.

Although many companies, including Gateway, have discussed or announced plans to ship a so-called Web pad--namely a portable LCD with touch-screen access to the Web and email--Sony may become the first major manufacturer to actually introduce such a product.

These mobile Internet appliances have been touted as an ideal method of Internet access at home, but some of the hype has died as costs of LCD panels have risen and supplies of many components have become an ongoing issue. Gateway's Web pad isn't expected to appear until the first quarter of 2001. Some companies will likely show off their Web pads at the Comdex computer trade show in November.

The Airboard initially will only be available in Japan, but Sony often uses Asian markets as a testing ground before releasing products in the United States and Europe.

Sony says the product will be easy to use and will appeal to buyers intimidated by the current crop of digital devices, PCs, and home networking products.

"Sony strongly believes that the Airboard will not only liberate users from the burden and complication of conventional information devices to help solve the digital divide, but also create the potential for a new networking business aimed at a new range of users," the company said in a statement.

The device is designed as a sort of all-in-one remote control and Internet appliance and fits into Sony's strategy of creating a networked home full of Sony computers, stereos, DVD players and televisions, which can talk to each other and share information via wireless Internet connections or through Sony's portable Memory Stick.

Sony, which calls its vision "AV/IT Convergence," for the intersection of audio-video products and information technology, is focusing on a number of gateway products, which will anchor the entire strategy.

These gateways include the PlayStation2 game console, the Clie personal digital assistant based on the Palm operating system, the Vaio line of PCs, and now the Airboard.

One kink in Sony's plans: A parts shortage which will severely limit the number of PlayStation2 consoles that the company will be able to ship, at least in the short term.

Sony is hardly the only company working on easy-to-use appliances for home Internet use. 3Com is preparing its countertop Internet appliance, dubbed Audrey, for release later this year. America Online, Microsoft and Intel have all developed similar products, and a number of smaller companies are working on competing devices.

These companies are all expecting the market for these devices to take off in the next few years. Market researcher International Data Corp. (IDC) predicts that TV set-top boxes, handheld computers and game consoles will increase from the 11 million units shipped last year to 89 million units in 2004. Revenue on such products will grow from $2.4 billion last year to $17.8 billion in 2004, IDC predicts.

The consumer electronics giant has hit a few road bumps on its path to total domination of the digital networked home, however. Sony said yesterday that it would have to cut shipments of its much-anticipated PlayStation2 in half because of component shortages, a move which was criticized because of the hype surrounding its launch.

The Clie was unveiled last month to mixed reviews. Although many applauded the improvements Sony made to traditional Palm-like devices, some were disappointed by the monochrome display and high price of the device.

Sony did not release pricing details of the Airboard.