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Sony launches its challenge to iPod

MUSICAL COMPETITION The newest Walkman is a tiny disk music player designed to be smaller, lighter and hold more songs than Apple's iPod

AP AND REUTERS , SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, LONDON AND TOKYO

A Sony employee displays the world's lightest and smallest portable audio player equipped with a 20 gigabyte hard disk at a press conference in Tokyo yesterday. The ``Net Walkman NW-HD1''goes on sale on July 10 priced at US$490.

PHOTO: AFP

The iPod may finally have a serious competitor.

The company that brought us the Walkman is entering the hard disk music player arena now dominated by its trendsetting-rival Apple Computer Inc.

Sony Corp unveiled its newest Walkman yesterday, a palm-sized, aluminum-encased player that can store up to 13,000 songs on its 20-gigabyte, 4.6cm hard drive, and promises 30 hours of playback on a rechargeable battery.

Weighing 107.7g, the device is smaller and lighter than the iPod's 15-, 20- and 40-gigabyte models, and just slightly larger than the 4-gigabyte iPod Mini. Sony claims the portable player is the smallest of its class.

Dubbed the Network Walkman NW-HD1, it marks a major upgrade to the legendary Walkman brand and the announcement comes on the 25th anniversary of the introduction of Sony's groundbreaking portable music player -- July 1, 1979.

It is expected to sell for around ?53,000 (US$487) in Japan and less than US$400 in the US, Sony said, undercutting Apple's 40-gigabyte device, which sells for US$499 and can hold up to 10,000 songs.

The NW-HD1 will be launched on July 10 in Japan, by the middle of next month in the US and in September in Europe.

Then the face-off will begin.

"I'd call it an iPod challenger, and one that will keep Apple on its toes," said Richard Doherty, an industry analyst with The Envisioneering Group.

Apple was not the first to introduce a high-capacity hard-disk portable music player, but its October 2001 launch of the iPod defined the market. The product's runaway success -- with an estimated 3 million units sold -- has since drawn other rivals, including Dell and Samsung.

Still, Apple leads with about a 60 percent share of the hard-disk drive player segment in the US, and about 30 percent of all portable music players, according to Michael Goodman, an analyst at The Yankee Group market research firm.

Sony's new Walkman is a highly-anticipated and belated entry but will likely be Apple's fiercest competitor yet, Doherty predicts.

"These are two aging entre-preneurs who are incredibly well-driven internally to exceed what they did just the month before," he said.

"It'll be great to finally have these two in the same playing field," Doherty said.

Of course, portable music isn't new to Sony. But in the past few years, analysts say Sony lost some of its luster as it aggressively pushed mini disc-based music players, and sales -- except for Japan -- fell short of expectations.

"Apple's iPod came out, and it was so successful, it really forced Sony's hand," Goodman said.

Because Sony uses the same 20-gigabyte hard drives across many of its product lines, including computers, it stands to benefit from massive price discounts for buying these devices in volume.

"Prices could fall by as much as 50 percent in the next 12 to 18 months," Dougherty said.

Sony declined to comment on sales targets. It has sold 340 million units of the Walkman over the past 25 years, including CD- and MD-based models.

Sony views a high-capacity, hard-drive player as a crucial addition to its range of products in boosting usage of its online music store Sony Connect. It is hoping the cachet of the Walkman name will help it close the gap on the iPod and Apple's iTunes download service.

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