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Sony resurrects Walkman brand

Dig out those skinny ties and Jazzercise tapes: Sony is bringing back its groundbreaking portable music player brand, a cultural mainstay of the 1980s.

SAN FRANCISCO--Dig out those skinny ties and Jazzercise tapes: The Walkman is coming back.

Sony's groundbreaking portable music player, a cultural mainstay of the 1980s, has languished in the past decade, as CDs and other digital music formats have displaced cassette tapes.

But Walkman is still a valuable brand name, according to Fujio Nishida, president of Sony Electronics. So the electronics giant plans to resurrect the name for all of its portable music players.

In addition, expect Sony to dive into the market for Internet devices and cell phones, Nishida said during a press briefing today in San Francisco. Sony intends to develop an Internet appliance "that's much easier (to use) even than WebTV," Nishida said.

The new Walkman lineup that will come out this year includes the MS Walkman, a digital player based on Sony's removable storage medium called Memory Stick. Sony previewed the MS Walkman, about the size of a Milky Way, last November at Comdex.

Also in the pipes is the MD Walkman, a player that uses Sony's MiniDisc format but also incorporates a digital-to-analog converter for loading MP3 audio files from a PC.

"We have to revitalize that Walkman brand," Nishida said. "It's such a huge asset, like Trinitron," Sony's ubiquitous color-screen technology.

The new music players will come with a major advertising campaign featuring an alien mascot that looks like a cross between E.T. and a Smurf.

Nishida also revealed plans for the Info Stick, a device that will fit in any Memory Stick slot and transfer data via a wireless connection to another device using the Bluetooth standard. The Info Stick is expected to hit the market next year.

Nishida also broadly commented on Sony's evolving plans to capitalize on the spread of broadband Internet access by entering the Internet appliance market and resurrecting its cell phone business.

Sony had given up on the cell phone market because the business model has been dictated by wireless carriers for all but the two or three biggest handset manufacturers, he said. That should change during the next couple of years, however, as third-generation handsets enter the market to capitalize on wireless Internet access.

"Broadband is changing the landscape of the business," Nishida said.

The broadband boom is also pushing Sony to work on its own entry into the increasingly crowded market for Internet appliances. Nishida said there's still room in the market for anyone who comes up with a better user interface.

Nishida also announced the following:

• The ongoing components shortage is affecting even those companies that make their own chips. Nishida said sales of DVD players have suffered because Sony can't pump out enough of its digital signal processors. "If we had enough product, they easily could achieve 1 million unit sales" this year, he said.

• Music buyers have another format choice. Sony is expanding its line of SA (Super Audio) CD players in the Unted States. The format promises better audio quality by cramming nearly twice as much data onto a disc--for a price. Players start at $2,000.

• Sony doesn't expect that American sales of its PlayStation2 game console will cannibalize sales of DVD players, as has happened in Japan. The consoles play both game discs and DVD movies, a major selling point in Sony's home country, where DVD players still carry premium prices. Nishida said more than 50 percent of Japanese consumers over 30 who bought a PlayStation2 did so primarily because of its DVD capability.