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Sony plans ISP, partnerships to tie content to devices

The electronics and entertainment giant is planning to launch a branded Net access service and is inking partnerships aimed at providing more online links for its products.

Sony Electronics is planning to launch a branded Internet access service by this fall and is inking a series of partnerships aimed at providing more online links for its products, the company said today.

The plans put concrete details on an ambitious Internet strategy involving both its electronics and entertainment divisions that, to date, has been largely sketched in general terms.

Robert Ashcroft, president of Sony's e-commerce business division, said the company is partnering with Listen.com to provide music downloads for a new online download service, Sony Music Club.

The company also is working with online photo start-up Zing on a service dubbed Sony Image Station, which will allow consumers to print digital photos and share them over the Internet.

Sony will launch a branded Internet service provider within the next few months, Ashcroft added, but he would not offer further details.

"In the future, we expect to have all of our devices connected to the Internet" with enhanced network features such as diagnostics, he said. "We need to make available connectivity and content" as that becomes a technical reality.

Ashcroft said Sony expects to announce more partnerships in the coming months to link its consumer electronics products with media content, including its video offerings, but the company does not intend to distribute Sony content exclusively.

Sony has been experimenting with elements of its strategy for some time. Last February, the company managed a little-known ISP, Hobonet, in San Diego. Since then, it has transferred the operation to another company.

The company has publicly discussed coupling gaming machine PlayStation 2 and its line of personal computers with Internet service. Sony has also flirted with the idea of developing broadband networks. Details, however, have been few.

Sony is planning to launch next week a test version of a new Web site, SonyStyle.com, which will provide online customer service and serve as a clearinghouse of information on Sony products.

Rick Doherty, director of research at Envisioneering.com, said the site launch represents a "huge step in networking and online opportunities" for Sony. "Not many companies could pull this off, but it's possible for Sony because they have an enormous lead in providing networking features."

Doherty cautioned that Sony's plans to beef up its online customer service could put a strain on its relationships with retailers, which get more money on service and warranties than on the margin of the sale.

"It's a major change," he said. "It's not just Internet e-tailing. This really is aimed at taking over a lot of the service end (of their consumer electronics business)...They've been having talks with retailers over these plans, but we've heard they haven't been pretty."

Sony already sells its Vaio computers on its Web site as well as some consumer electronics items--but not its complete product line. Sony's restraint partly comes from fears of alienating its retail partners, executives have said.

Still, the site will offer retailers something, too, by pulling together information on new Sony products--a move that stands to ease the pain of shopping for consumer electronics devices.

"People rank shopping for electronics along with going to the dentist and buying a new car," said Doherty. "It's quite a gift to retailers. But the big question is whether consumers will buy retail or purchase online."

SonyStyle.com will also provide strong cross-divisional opportunities for Sony through its Music Club and similar services.

Sony currently offers about 50 music singles on its Web site on a pay-per-download basis. Its new music service will expand those offerings beyond the Sony catalogue through a deal with Listen.com, Sony's Ashcroft said. He said details of the new service--including whether consumers will be charged per download or by a subscription rate--are still being worked out.

"We will find ways to link to everything that is Sony and things not Sony," said Ashcroft. "Our role is to make content available in an easy way, including all music that is legally available. We're working with outside partners to ensure the Music Club becomes a music portal."

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.