The following text is copyright 1999 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Walkman or Betamax?

by Scott Bradner

On March 9th Sony Corporation uttered the magic word "network" to transform itself from a yesterday company into a tomorrow one. Sony has decided that it had to recreate itself to be ready for, in the words of the press release, "the network-centric society of the 21st century" It remains to be seen if this new Sony will follow the path of innovation that led to the Walkman or the path of obstinateness that produced the Betamax.

Sony has reorganized its current electronics divisions into 4 new business units: Home Network Company, Personal IT Network Company, Core Technology and Network Company, and Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc. Seems they like this network thing since only the computer games group does not have that word in its name. Each of these companies will be largely autonomous, with local authority and separate R&D labs.

A major electronics company jumping on the digital network bandwagon is not all that special these days of near religious fervor over the idea of the convergence of voice, video and data over the Internet. But Sony seems to be marching to a different drummer than many of the convergence-tracking companies, a drummer that may well be playing the original Internet tune. As an article in the March 7th New York Times notes, Sony's biggest competition in its new path is Microsoft. The Microsoft that has defined what local networking is in corporate America. In the last few years many people have called Microsoft the "new IBM," One part of IBM's old view of the world was that there would be one computer of any importance in an organization -- the IBM mainframe. In IBM's model all other computers, if there were any, would be subservient to the mainframe. Today's PCs are as powerful in most dimensions as the IBM mainframes of a few years ago and

Microsoft seems to have the same model in mind that IBM did. A computer running a Microsoft operating system, Windows or Windows CE will be a mini-mainframe acting as the broker of services in the home. This type of intermediary breaks the most basic feature of the Internet model of doing things -- applications reside in the edges. Enabling new applications is done by simply running them. In the IBM/Microsoft model applications are brought to you by the controlling computer.

Sony is following the Internet path. They describe a continuation of the Internet peer to peer model with dozens of network-based appliances communicating without requiring help from a PC.

My heart rides with the big guy here -- Sony's revenue is 3.5 times that of Microsoft -- and with the Internet model that lets me plan my own future.

disclaimer: Some say that Harvard's the big guy when it comes to well deserved ego but the above is my own heart riding.