Vaio computers to return to the US to woo high-end consumers

Now owned and made by a private firm, Vaio computers are hoping for some success in the US, says The Wall Street Journal. But the company faces challenges.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read

Vaio is entering the US market where it will target the high-end laptop market. Vaio

Vaio computers are planning a comeback in the US, though this time Sony isn't the one making or selling them.

In March 2014, Sony sold its poorly-performing laptop division to an investment fund in the midst of an ongoing global downturn in PC sales. The new group, dubbed Vaio Corp, has been selling computers in Japan and now is looking to broaden its horizons to the United States by focusing on high-end laptops, The Wall Street Journal said on Wednesday.

Vaio Corp will begin offering laptops at Microsoft retail stores in the US in October, Vaio CEO Yoshimi Ota told the Journal. The company also has its sights set on Brazil where it will team up with a Brazilian PC maker to construct and sell Vaio-designed computers.

Like many PC makers, Sony hit hard times trying to eke out a living selling laptops at a time when consumers were opting for mobile phones and tablets. Sony's Vaio computers generally garnered good reviews but were considered too expensive to compete with lower-priced, mass-market rivals. And even now, the Vaio lineup is having trouble catching on in Japan, where its market share is less than 1 percent, according to data from research firm Euromonitor. So what makes Vaio's CEO believe the laptops have a chance in the US?

Ota told the Journal that he thinks Vaio can do well in the US by targeting high-end users rather than going after mass market consumers as Sony did. The company wants to reach out to graphic designers, photographers and other professionals who use MacBooks because there are no good alternatives among Windows PCs, Ota said. Sony's mistake was that it focused on market share instead of profitability, Ota added, a mistake Vaio will presumably try to avoid.

"We are not interested in cheap models for everyone," Ota said.

The situation with Vaio strikes a familiar chord. In 2004, IBM sold its poorly-performing PC division to Chinese maker Lenovo. And now Lenovo is the top PC vendor in the world. But does Vaio stand a chance of making a dent in a PC market that's stuck in the middle of a downturn?

IHS Technology analyst Rhoda Alexander told the Journal that although Vaio is small, it could benefit from the Sony brand name, providing "a good starting point" to expand abroad. But Euromonitor analyst Karissa Chua said that Vaio will "struggle to gain significant market share and may eventually be forced out of the market," adding that since the sale, Vaio hasn't rolled out any innovative products to distinguish itself from rival vendors.

Vaio will kick off its return to the US this fall with its VAIO Z Canvas, a hybrid computer that starts off as a tablet but can turn into a laptop via a wireless keyboard. Powered by an Intel Core i7 processor, the Vaio Z Canvas offers a 12.3-inch screen with a resolution of 2,560x1,704 pixels and can handle as much as 16 gigabytes of memory and 256GB of internal storage via an SSD card.

The Vaio Z Canvas will be available at Microsoft stores in the US and at Microsoft's website, starting October 5 and up for preorder in September, a spokeswoman for Microsoft said. The laptop will be a Signature Edition PC, which means that it will be free of bloatware and other pre-installed software that often slow down the PC. This will be the first time the Vaio Z Canvas will be available for purchase from a US retailer, the spokeswoman confirmed.

But price will be a sticking point. The Vaio Z Canvas will start at $2,199 in the U.S., a high price when compared with such rival machines as Microsoft's Surface Pro 3, which comes in a model packed with a 12-inch-screen, an i7 chip, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of onboard storage that normally sells for $1,549.

Vaio has plans for other devices, the Journal said, including a document-sized laptop with built-in cellular connectivity as well as desktop PCs. Other products on the drawing board are communication devices, wearable gadgets and factory-automation machines instilled with artificial intelligence, pushing Vaio into areas beyond the laptop.