January 8, 2001 6:20 AM PST

Sony trots out Web-browsing eVilla with Be OS

LAS VEGAS--With the debut of eVilla, Sony has become the latest company to market a Web-browsing appliance to the roughly half of American households that don't own a computer.

Trying to grab what it sees as a new niche, Sony is billing the unit as a network entertainment center, stressing the device's multimedia side, such as the ability to play streaming audio and to connect to external speakers.

The unit features a 15-inch, portrait-style monitor, giving the device a distinctly longer shape than most computers or Net appliances. Although it lacks a hard drive, the unit has a Memory Stick reader as well as two universal serial bus (USB) ports to connect to a printer and external storage such as a Zip drive.

The eVilla is also unique because of what it uses on the inside--namely, the BeIA operating system from Be. The win is big for the Menlo Park, Calif., company, which has been touting its operating system as well-suited for Net appliances, but has yet to gain a major foothold in the market.

The device, whose debut was first reported by CNET News.com, hit the stage Friday in a slew of announcements from Sony. It is set to begin shipping in the spring at a cost of $500, with a $21.95 monthly fee for the required Internet service. The unit also has an Ethernet port for high-speed service, although plans for broadband access are still being developed.

Sony acknowledged that at $500, the cost of the unit, which includes both flash memory and traditional DRAM, is being subsidized.

"We realized the need to keep the price at a level people would be interested in" paying, said Sony marketing manager James Neal.

Neal also acknowledged that the Internet newbie market is a "tough nut to crack," saying the company will promote the device as an apt choice for families that already have a PC but are suffering from an Internet traffic jam.

IDC analyst Bryan Ma predicted late last year that 2001 would bring a flurry of new Internet devices, including many from well-known names as opposed to start-ups.

Sony representatives said the company's brand name should be a big draw, noting that while non-PC households may never have heard of Gateway or Compaq Computer, they probably already own a Sony product.

Internet appliance makers such as Netpliance that have targeted Net neophytes have found the going tough, and even giants like Microsoft have begun looking to sell their net devices to those who already own a PC.

As is characteristic for Sony, the eVilla is designed to thwart those who would use it as a vehicle for pirating music. Although the eVilla can save music on a Memory Stick, Sony's bubble-gum-sized flash memory card, the music can only be played by the eVilla. While the move may stymie illegal copying, it also prevents eVilla owners from playing the same music even on Sony's own devices, such as its Memory Stick Walkman.

 

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