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Sony looks to high end for hit products

The consumer electronics giant brings some clarity to its ambiguous Qualia product line--offering some details about what the products would be and whom they would target.

Sony brought some clarity to its ambiguous Qualia product line--offering some details about what the products would be and whom they would target--but in the end, only the company's top brass will have the final say on what Qualia truly is.

The consumer electronics giant announced late Monday in Tokyo that the first products of the Qualia project will be available in Japan, beginning June 24. The Qualia line, which started in May 2001, will be high-end consumer electronics products meant for the affluent consumer. They will initially be sold only at Sony stores. U.S. availability is to be determined.

Proposed Qualia products are reviewed by Sony's Qualia committee, which is made up of company Chief Executive Officer Nobuyuki Idei and Chief Operating Officer Kunitake Ando, along with the heads of the company's various business units. The executives will review the products for functionality, specifications and ability in order to elicit strong responses from consumers. The new line is meant to drive innovation for features and products that can be used in other parts of Sony's various businesses.

"By pushing the envelope, we hope that innovations will trickle down throughout the Sony line," company spokesman Greg Dvorken said.

Business realities sometimes prevent truly innovative products from hitting the market, and in the case of Qualia products, engineers will be given more flexibility to develop a product, Dvorken said.

The Qualia idea will likely be applied to other parts of Sony's business, but it will begin in electronics--the company's largest revenue contributor and the department that took the hardest fall in the company's disappointing performance in the last fiscal year.

During its fiscal year-end earnings call in late April, Sony Electronics' Tokyo-based parent reported disappointing results, causing its stock to drop more than 20 percent in the course of a couple days to a 52-week low. The company cited a sales decrease for Vaio PCs, as well as its CRT televisions, as some of the reasons for the electronics business' results.

"This is a good time for Sony to be getting new and exciting products out the door," said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst with research firm IDC. "They have to play to their historical strengths, innovation and marketing."

Kevorkian added that the company seems to be falling behind in product innovation, and cited the portable digital audio space as an example. The company pioneered the Walkman, a portable tape player, but it has taken a backseat to others, such as Apple, which developed the hard drive-based and popular iPod.

"Cool technology is never enough in and of itself--it still has to appeal to the segment you're targeting," said Kevorkian.

Sony has 17 Qualia products in the pipeline, but it announced four late Monday.

On June 24, Sony will release the Qualia 015, a 36-inch color monitor that will sell for 1.3 million yen (about $11,000), and the compact Qualia 016, a 2.11 megapixel camera that will sell for 380,000 yen (about $3,200). The Qualia 016 camera will measure 2.7 inches wide, 0.9-inch high and 0.7-inch deep and will use the company's Memory Stick Duo removable flash memory format. The Qualia 015 monitor offers improved images through the use of filters.

On Aug. 1, Sony will release the Qualia 004--a 6.2 megapixel digital projector--for 2.4 million yen (about $20,300). And on Aug. 11, Sony will release the Qualia 007 Super Audio CD System high-end audio system for 800,000 yen (about $6,800) with 700,000-yen (about $5,900) 100W speakers. The Super Audio CD format offers better audio quality by cramming more than twice as much data onto a disc.