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Sony's challenge for 2008: Take on software companies

A year ago, Sony was recovering. Now it is on the warpath, says its CEO.

Sony has shored up the problems in its electronics, and will concentrate in 2008 on bringing more video content to its devices and improving its software, said CEO Sir Howard Stringer.

"We will see if we can enter the battle against the software companies. This is probably the year we need to demonstrate that," Stringer said during a meeting with reporters at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Monday morning.

One of the first examples of this strategy will be an expansion of the PlayStation Network. The network now is mostly used by gamers. Sony wants to turn it into a platform to deliver video, too. Sony will hold a press conference in two months to discuss changes to the PlayStation 3.

The world, of course, will wait and see. Consumers and analysts for the past several years have complained about the functionality of the software in Sony devices. The company, along with nearly everyone in the electronics industry, has also been trying to bridge the gap between the PC and the TV for years. But progress seems to be occurring across the industry. Microsoft says it has put nearly a million intelligent set-top boxes into homes, and Sharp and Samsung announced new TVs that serve up headlines and weather from Web sites.

Overall, Stringer seemed to be in an upbeat mood. A year ago at the same press conference, he had recently launched into a reorganization of the company and was in the midst of a notebook battery recall. Stringer and others noted that the software divisions didn't talk with the hardware divisions, and neither had much contact with the movie unit.

Now, all of Sony's divisions work more cohesively together, he said. Sales in many key areas are also up. Blu-ray players outsold HD DVD players during the holiday season, Sony asserted. Blu-ray accounted for 70 percent of the standalone high-def video players during the holidays, according to the company.

"Three years ago, we were not profitable in electronics. Now we are seriously profitable," he said. Observers will "also probably be pleasantly surprised" with results for Sony's third fiscal quarter, which come soon. Recent economic trends could put a damper on sales "but it's too early to be pessimistic," he said.

The reorganization has also allowed Sony to start coming out with more innovative products, such as the robotic Rolly device.

"We are now getting into the rhythm of innovation," Stringer said.

Stringer and other executives touted Sony's OLED TVs. The company, however, admitted that making large OLED TVs (the version on the market measures only 11 inches in diameter) is difficult.

Other notes:

--Stringer wouldn't directly comment on whether the Blu-ray consortium paid money to Warner to put its movies exclusively on Blu-ray. Stringer said Warner saw the value of the format but dodged discussing financial terms. "I think you are going to have to take that announcement at face value," he said.

The HD DVD group paid Paramount to commit to publishing its movies on the HD DVD format for a specified period of time in 2007. It was seen as a victory by the HD DVD group, but Blu-ray backers called the deal a form of a bribe.

--Sony Ericsson is going to concentrate more heavily in gaining market share in North America. Worldwide, Sony Ericsson has seen its market share rise to around 10 percent, but the weak place is the U.S., admitted Dick Komiyama, who heads up the group.

--Sony is also looking at incorporating its Cell processor, which currently sits inside of the PlayStation3, in other products. Cell is particularly good at manipulating video streams. The company even held a contest among engineers to design new applications. However, Sony didn't put a firm date on when some of these devices might come out or what they might be.

--The PlayStation 2 will become the device that Sony will use to take on the Nintendo Wii. Titles like Guitar Hero have sold well with PlayStation 2 and consumers can expect to see more casual games and non-core gamer games coming out, said Kaz Hirai, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, which oversees video consoles.