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Sony's robotic dog: cute, but not cuddly

The new Aibo will bring robotics and other new Sony technology into the American home, but it's not likely to become an integral part of American life, analysts say.

Could Sony's new Aibo be a robotic--and canine--version of a Trojan horse, this time used to smuggle the electronic giant's new technology into homes around the world?

Probably not, analysts say, but Aibo will bring robotics into the home, along with other new Sony technologies.

Announced today, Aibo is an electronic pet capable of acting in response to external stimuli and communicating with its owner. Intended for entertainment purposes only, the introduction of the robotic dog contains shades of the company's previous entertainment product, the PlayStation. Once introduced as a pure gaming platform, the PlayStation now includes computing components such as DVD drives and Internet access.

The introduction of the electronic pet is probably not a subversive method of ingratiating Sony technology into the American home, especially because Aibo is only projected to sell 2,000 units in the United States next year, according to Sean Kaldor, an analyst with International Data Corporation.

"I don't think this is their vehicle to propagate technologies into the mass user scale," Kaldor said, noting that Aibo can only perform very limited functions and can't even fetch yet. Plus, he noted, the toy is priced around $2,000, which will probably discourage mainstream acceptance. "This isn't a stealth way to mass-introduce a product."

But Aibo may be some Americans' first opportunity to play with Sony's Memory Stick, a portable, re-recordable storage media 1.5 inches long with the thickness of a piece of gum. Sony is selling an 8MB Memory Stick accessory that can store commands for Aibo.

Aibo is also one of the first devices shipping running on Sony's Aperios real-time embedded operating system. Sony struck a deal with General Instrument last year, licensing the operating system for use in GI's set-top boxes.

"There's a lot of operating systems out there, and this is Sony's proprietary operating system," explained Seamus McAteer, an analyst with Jupiter Communications, expressing doubts that Sony is attempting any significant attempt at marketing or promoting Aperios through Aibo.

"You're not going to have a ton of developers developing a lot of applications to run on this device, so it doesn't buy you a whole lot," he said. "Whoever's going to buy this really doesn't care which real-time OS it is using. It's a design win, but not a big deal."

Americans are not likely to shell out $2,000 for a programmable dog that does not yet fetch, but Aibo is likely to succeed in the Japanese market, which wholeheartedly embraced the Tamagotchi electronic toys, Kaldor said.

"The Japanese perspective on technology is warm and fuzzy," he said. "Robots in Japan are seen as very compelling things, unlike in the U.S., where they seem cold and harsh."