Incorporated in Aibo, the cute, silver-toned pet robot dog that went on sale June 1, was much that resonated with the history of its maker, Japan’s Sony Corporation.
For instance, the novel coupling of “entertainment” and “robot” recalled the pairing of “personal” and “stereo” in the Sony Walkman two decades earlier.
There was the “Memory Stick” lodged under Aibo’s tail, a new data storage medium about the size of a piece of chewing gum that could someday become as ubiquitous as that other Sony invention, the 3.5” floppy disk.
And Aibo’s rechargeable lithium-ion batteries were yet another Sony original, developed in this $50 billion giant’s seemingly never-ending quest for smaller, faster, friendlier consumer electronics products.
Those innovations fit neatly into Sony’s track record. But Aibo had at least two unfamiliar aspects. One was the way Sony chose to make the new home-entertainment robot available: only over the Internet, where all 3,000 units of the Japanese allocation were snapped up in 17 seconds. The other was Aperios, its operating system.
Wait a second… an operating system from Sony? What gives?
The digital revolution. Just before the final Christmas shopping season of the millennium, the world’s best-known electronic consumer goods maker has decided to re-invent itself for the Internet age. The transformation is being led by Nobuyuki Idei, the tough-minded president who took Sony’s reins in 1995 and took to the digital agenda in a big way. The new motto he gave the company, “Digital Dream Kids,” is also an excellent description of Idei’s unusual brain trust-the Sony Computer Science Laboratory (CSL).
Founded a decade ago, CSL is a very un-Japanese research shop set up in emulation of the mother of all computer science labs, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). At CSL’s Tokyo offices, thirty-odd researchers now work on deep concepts of computer connectedness and far-out interfaces. What’s more, they’ve been tapped by Idei to help lead him and the rest of Sony’s 170,000 workers into the new world of “convergence”-where the PC and home audiovisual appliances merge, and Sony battles Microsoft.
In fact, that battle has already begun. The Aperios OS, invented at CSL, and Microsoft’s Windows CE are squaring off in a struggle for preeminence inside the TV set-top box, the latest portal for digital cable services and a possible linchpin for the high-speed “home network” that Idei’s company hopes will ultimately link each of its products not just to one another, but also to the Internet.