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Sony targets small biz with notebook offerings

Vaio line will be marketed to small and medium-size businesses--a tough nut that the electronics giant is eager to crack.

Sony on Tuesday announced a new program to sell its Vaio brand of notebooks and other products to small businesses.

Under the Vaio Professional initiative, configurable notebook products will be sold through resellers and direct business-to-business channels. Software options and other features of these products will be different from Vaio products marketed for consumers. The products will be supported by optional three-year limited warranties and priority on-site service.

The new line of Vaio notebooks will come loaded with the Windows XP Professional operating system and will feature several options for multimedia and other image applications. Business users will be able to opt for software and hardware configurations based on their individual requirements. Vaio products to be sold under the new plan include A-Series and S-Series notebooks. A-Series is currently available in 17-inch and 15-inch widescreen varieties, while S-Series notebooks have a 13.3-inch display.

Sony said earlier this year that it wanted to target the small-business market, and hoped to more than double revenue from that segment. Traditionally, the small businesses that have looked to Sony for tech gear are graphics and design companies, according to executives, who add that Sony wants to expand its reach.

A moving target
Each computer company tends to have a different customer in mind when it comes to the small to medium-size business segment, from companies with fewer than 25 staff members to those with just under 500. Businesses in that wide range have more diverse needs for buying technology than large businesses, so there is less rhyme or reason, collectively, to their decisions--making it even harder to market to them.

Other computing companies have been looking to reach this segment, but success has been relatively limited when compared with large-business spending. The small-business segment is just that--small--but many observers have said that's partly because it's difficult to track small-business spending, and partly due to a lack of products designed specifically for small businesses.

Sony and others have been selling to this segment for about three years, but this new program is its first effort to dedicate products to small businesses.

Selling to small and midsize businesses has changed following the tech downturn, with buyers of information technology being more knowledgeable.

IT managers displaced from large companies have landed at smaller firms. They have organized their new IT departments much like those at the larger operations they had left, so Sony is responding, according to Mike Abary, general manager of Vaio product marketing at Sony Electronics.

As part of its effort to cater more to small and midsize businesses, Sony will extend the length of its products cycles so IT managers will face changes less frequently after they purchase new products.

"Longer life cycles were one of our top priorities," Abary said. "In the past, product cycles were in line with consumers, which was about 16 weeks, but we're now around six months to a year, and we want to make it longer over time."

Sony will also add up to 10,000 new resellers in the next year or two, making it easier to reach small businesses. The company also says it will increase the number of service and support lines to handle help calls from small businesses.

Something else in store
Separately Tuesday, Sony launched a USB-enabled device designed to provide 2 gigabytes of storage capacity and "auto sync" file synchronization software. The package will be available in a one-inch hard disk drive about half an inch thick. Micro Vault PRO can transfer data without the need for cables or driver software.

The company said users can designate folders with files and e-mails they want to be automatically saved and synchronized. Changes in these folders will automatically register on both the PC files and on the Micro Vault PRO. The device is compatible with Windows Me, 2000 Pro, XP Pro and XP Home operating systems. The product will be available later this month at a retail price of $249.99.