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Sony: PlayStation2 the linchpin in new home system

The upcoming PlayStation2 game console might be impressive, but it is only the first stage in a revolution in home entertainment, a high-level Sony executive says today.

SAN JOSE, California--The upcoming PlayStation2 game console might be impressive, but it is only the first stage in a revolution in home entertainment, a high-level Sony executive said today.

In the future, the Japanese electronics giant will develop a variety of products and services that will eventually lead to an era of "networked digital entertainment" in which homes will download entertainment and games via cable and then replay them on consoles, said Ken Kurtaragi, president and chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, at the processor industry conference here.

At the center of Sony's vision is the PlayStation. Next year, the first PlayStation2 systems will come to the U.S., but it will only be a start. The first units will contain a 128-bit "Emotion" graphics chip system that runs at a powerful 295 MHz. The system will include 32MB of Rambus memory, 4MB of video memory, 4X DVD-ROM, and technology that will allow consumers to run DVD movies.

Yet, despite all the hype, there are plenty of obstacles in the way of Sony's grand vision.

For one, distributing content to living rooms will only be popularized with the spread of broadband connections into the home, analysts have said. The PlayStation2 won't have a cable modem connection until 2001, and even then, there are issues delaying the availability of widespread service.

Furthermore, analysts say high-powered entertainment consoles aren't likely to replace PCs anytime soon as the preferred means for accessing the Internet.

There is also the concern over how many devices people might want to stack up on their old TV. The list of possible devices is long and getting longer: Companies such as TiVo and Replay are vying for space with their digital video recorders; Sony, along with Sega and Nintendo, are offering new functions on their game consoles; cable operators are souping up their cable TV set-top boxes; Microsoft is offering the WebTV Internet set-top, and AOL is going to get into the mix with a TV set-top later next year.

But those issues are clearly not slowing Sony. The fact that the firm's senior executives, usually disinclined to speak publicly, are pitching their vision at the Microprocessor Forum speaks volumes. In a conference that is still dominated by the likes of Intel, AMD, and IBM, Sony's presence signals the company's desire to play a key role in the convergence of PC and consumer electronics technologies in the home of the future.

Sony's Kurtaragi said that by 2001many of the PlayStation2 units will be hooked into cable networks. "The strongest candidate for this [high-speed home networks] will be cables connected to the home," he said.

By 2002, Sony will come out with a new version of the Emotion graphics system, the technology that gives the PlayStation its advanced graphics. This second-generation Emotion chip will contain approximately 40 million transistors, he said.

Analysts say this setup will give Sony the lead, for a while. Sony's graphics processor will offer "dramatically better" performance and graphics than what can be found in PCs right now, said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with Microdesign Resources. Next year, however, graphics companies such as Nvidia are coming out with chips that will close the gap. Also, Sony's platform isn't easy to program, Glaskowsky said.

Kurtaragi said the hits will keep coming. In 2005, "a great innovation in architecture will occur," he said. The Emotion engine will contain multimillions of transistors and be made on the 0.1-micron manufacturing process, two manufacturing generations beyond today's chips, he said.

This processing power will lead to new, as-yet unknown forms of entertainment, he said. Furthermore, by this time, Sony will create channels so that "content for PlayStation and PlayStation 2 can be distributed to customers," over secure Internet connections, he said.

And Sony will continue to promote its own line of workstations, the PlayStation TOOL, to ensure that content will exist, Kurtaragi said.

Sony's grand plans spring from the turgid growth of game consoles. Thirty-two and 64-bit game consoles have had a pick-up rate nearly double that of PCs, he said. Thirty-three percent of homes in Japan have them, but only 19 percent of homes in the U.S. do, he added, leaving lots of room for market expansion.

"The dawn of a new microprocessor is about to begin," Kurtaragi said.

Sony's PlayStation2 push comes on the heels of Sega's recent launch of its next-generation Dreamcast system.