Sony banking on karaoke, sound quality to woo Japanese to Walkman, not Apple

By Yuri Kageyama, AP
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sony banking on karaoke to woo buyers to Walkman

TOKYO — Sony is zeroing in on sound quality and karaoke-like lyric displays to woo Japan, its stronghold in digital music players, amid a battering elsewhere from U.S. rival Apple Inc.’s iPod.

Hisatsugu Nakamuta, the Sony Corp. general manager overseeing marketing, said Wednesday that the Japanese electronics and entertainment company is hoping to grab as much as half of Japan’s annual 6.5 million unit portable audio-player market with its new Walkman models.

He pointed to an internal survey that found 32.4 percent of Japanese teens say they chose the Walkman over other products because it displays synchronized lyrics as the song is played, much like a karaoke machine.

In the souped up version of the feature, which is unique to Japanese models, the words pop up more prominently in the center of the tiny display. Click on a button, and the singer’s voice gets muted for an instant on-the-go karaoke effect.

“Singing can be a source of power, and it is fun to sing along and to listen to music with the lyrics,” Nakamuta said. “The Walkman is always aiming to deliver new musical experiences to customers.”

The latest Walkman models, some of which are also on sale in the U.S., also have improved digital noise-cancelling technology for hard-core music fans who are picky about sound, Nakamuta told reporters at a Tokyo hall.

The Walkman has been showing signs of a comeback lately — at least in its home Japanese market.

In Japan, the Walkman still boasts name recognition and brand loyalty, and can take advantage of lulls in new iPod offerings. But skeptics say its lead is likely to be shaken when new iPod models hit stores.

Sony overtook Apple in August to rise to top market share in digital music players in Japan, at 47.8 percent in numbers of machines sold, compared with 44.0 percent for Apple, according to Tokyo-based researcher BCN Inc.

In July, as in nearly all recent months in Japan, Apple led at 47.5 percent to Sony’s 45.2 percent.

The Walkman’s status in Japan strikes a contrast to its dismal fate in the U.S., where its market share sits at 2 percent, and Apple reigns supreme at 77 percent, according to NPD Group, based in Port Washington, N.Y., which studies consumer market data.

Even in Japan, the Walkman commands a lower price than the iPod — sometimes selling at half the price of the Apple product — underlying Sony’s dwindling stature.

Musician and programmer Teruyuki Kawabata isn’t won over a bit.

“I used to have a Walkman when I was a kid, but I would never dream of buying one,” said Kawabata, who is in his 30s and owns an iPhone and an iPod. “Apple products are cool and have stylish designs. I wish Sony would learn from Apple.”

Ryosuke Katsura, electronics analyst at Mizuho Securities Co. in Tokyo, thinks Japan makes up such a small part of global music-player sales that rising to the top there is not significant.

“Sony is losing big time in the global market,” he said. “It is difficult to overtake a leader like Apple.”

Decisive in the battle between Apple and Sony is how Apple is not as dependent as Sony on making money by selling hardware machines as opposed to services, Katsura said.

Sony, which also makes Bravia flat-panel TVs and the PlayStation 3 video-game console, racked up its second straight fiscal year of red ink for the year through March, and is struggling to turn its business around, partly through new services.

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