To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Walkman the day Sony practically invented personal audio electronics the company is introducing a hard-drive-based digital music player to take on Apple's successful iPod.
The gesture underscores the sad state of affairs for Sony in the world of portable audio a world it arguably created 25 years ago. In 1979, the company was a leader. Today, it is a follower.
What's changed? In a word, content.
You see, 2004 also marks the 15th anniversary of Sony's purchase of Columbia Pictures. And the year before, the company bought CBS Records. Those dubious assets have fogged Sony's vision in personal electronics.
In more lucid times, Sony was willing to take on the purveyors of content to proliferate innovative products with which to enjoy it.
Sony spent years, for example, fighting Universal Studios, which sued over an ad the company produced in the 1970s to introduce the VCR concept.
In the ads, Sony suggested consumers tune in to Kojak or Columbo two popular TV detective dramas broadcast in the same time slot and tape the other to watch later.
As we all know, Sony and the VCR concept prevailed. But Sony wouldn't take on that fight today. It has content to protect.
Which is why the company is a follower in MP3.
A shame, really. Can you name a company better suited to dominate the MP3 phenomenon than Sony? It was off to a good start, on the hardware side. The Music Clip, Sony's entre into digital music players, was a thing of beauty. Few of the thousands of players introduced before or since have matched its function or style.
But rather than embrace MP3, Sony mucked things up with its own digital music format, Atrac (pronounced eight-track!), and erected a security system to ensure that consumers "checked" music into and out of the Music Clip.
Imagine if Sony had forced you to keep track of the music you copied onto cassette tapes before they would play on a Walkman! Needless to say, the Walkman would have followed the eight-track tape into oblivion.
Sony's new music player wears the same Atrac noose around its neck. So Apple needn't worry; the iPod will still be the darling of the MP3 world.
We don't need detectives Columbo or Kojak to figure that one out.
Mike Feibus is principal analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies Inc., a market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., that focuses on components for mobile systems. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.