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Sony teases with mystery laptop

A Web site announcing a new kind of Vaio laptop counts down until its release during CES next month. Is it a Netbook?

Sony Vaio CES laptop
Is Sony referring to a Netbook here?

CES 2009 is fast approaching, and rumors of new laptops are everywhere. This week though, the focus is on Sony.

Though enterprising news outlets have dug up hints at new products from the likes of Delland Lenovo weeks before the big gadget exhibition, Sony is outing itself as having a new portable PC that will "change the way you think about laptops." A clock counting down the days and hours until January 9, when the new product is scheduled to appear, popped up on Sony's New Zealand site, as pointed out over the weekend by Engadget.

Putting the teaser in context of the photo of the oddly-shaped Sony device that popped up on the FCC's Web site two weeks ago, it certainly seems likely that this will be a notebook unlike what others are offering.

But the question is, will it be a Netbook? Sony has been conspicuously absent from the Netbook market among its Windows-wielding brethren. (Apple has held out too, but it's not price-matching with other PC makers.)

Netbooks have taken off in the past 12 months, moving from a quirky offering from Asus to the form factor that's giving the PC industrya whiff of hope. All the major manufacturers are on board, and it's paying off now since the price tags are cheaper than standard notebooks. However, how it will hurt them in the long run (dragging down average prices of notebooks, cannibalizing lower-end laptop models) is still to be determined.

The argument for Sony keeping out of the low-end fray is certainly there. Sony--like Apple--fancies itself a maker of luxury devices and is loath to get into price wars with the likes of Dell and HP. (Of course, it didn't want to wrestle with the lower-tier Vizio and Westinghouse in LCD TVs either, but the reality of the HDTV market forced Sony's hand.)

The electronics giant has also objected to the Netbook concept several times publicly. In February, Sony's head of its Vaio group in the U.S. called the Netbook movement "a race to the bottom," though by July Sony Electronics President Stan Glasgow refused to confirm or deny plans for such a product.

Most recently, though, a Sony exec in the UK told ZDNet UK that Sony is "not in for the moment" when it comes to Netbooks, clearly not ruling it out completely. Netbooks, are they are now, "are not properly designed for consumer needs," Nicolas Barendson told ZDNet.

Does that mean that they have an entirely new design that will meet the needs of people looking for a Netbook-like device? Perhaps. But the key will be the price, and low-cost laptops are not Sony's cup of tea. So if they do edge into Netbook-like territory, expect them to market it like something other than a laptop, and more like another kind of portable consumer device.