Move over Energizer Bunny, here's Nabaztag!

Posted by: Gremelin

Move over Energizer Bunny, here's Nabaztag! - 08/13/06 03:06 AM

PARIS, France (Reuters) -- In the evolution of electronic companions, first came the speaking doll, then the Tamagotchi virtual pet, then Sony's short-lived AIBO dog.

Now, it could be the dawn of the Wi-Fi rabbit era.

The plastic bunny with ears like TV antennae can read out emails and mobile phone text messages, tell children to go to bed, alert one to a stock collapse and give traffic updates by receiving Internet feeds via a wireless Wi-Fi network.

The bunny, which stands 9 inches tall and has a white cone-like body that lights up when it speaks, is called Nabaztag, which means rabbit in Armenian, its creator's mother tongue. It can also wiggle its ears and sing songs.

"If I send a text message to my wife and she is busy cooking, she will hear it without having to check her mobile," said a Paris-based telecoms analyst at a international brokerage, who did not wish to be named.

French entrepreneur Rafi Haladjian, who conceived the idea, says the rabbit sometimes carries more sway over children than their parents and can help men who have misbehaved win forgiveness from angry partners.

"It is sad, but true," he said.

Nabaztag costs 115 euros ($148) in France, 80 pounds ($152) in Britain and $150 in the United States. It is made in Shenzhen, China.

Since its market debut last year, 50,000 Nabaztags have been sold in France, Britain, Belgium and Switzerland, and Haladjian hopes to sell 150,000 by the end of this year.

The businessman is now looking to conquer the United States, where he only has a tiny presence, and is gearing up for the December holiday shopping season.

Last December, Haladjian appeared on CNN for three minutes and received 350,000 online information requests.

"The only problem was that we had zero bunnies, we had sold them all already and we had not even started selling them in the United States yet," he said.

The rabbit is made by French company Violet, 55 percent owned by Haladjian and 30 percent by Banexi Ventures, a private equity arm of French bank BNP Paribas.
Great expectations

Paul Jackson, an analyst at research house Forrester, is among several analysts who predict the Nabaztag will find favor among the well-heeled and technology-savvy as it benefits from the spread of Wi-Fi networks around the globe.

Wi-Fi technology is the latest must-have in many mass-market consumer goods, from mobile phones to personal digital assistants, laptops and TV set-top boxes.

In Western Europe's seven largest markets, on average about 6 percent of households have a Wi-Fi home network while in the United States, the rate is between 12 percent and 14 percent, according to Forrester.

Nabaztag, which performs basic tasks, relies on relatively simple technology -- Wi-Fi and online software and filters.

Analysts say one of the reasons Sony's AIBO dog was discontinued this year was that its technology was too complex and the robotic animal too pricey.

But some say simplicity can also be a weakness in a sophisticated market where some want all the latest bells and whistles.

"The problem with targeting this tech elite is that they are very fickle," said Jackson.

Tamagotchi fell out of favor with many children after a while because its functions were repetitive, analysts say.

Haladjian says the key to Nabaztag's longevity will be constant innovation and finding new applications as the Internet evolves. But competition is heating up.

Ambient Devices, a spin-off from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is one of several rivals putting Internet-based communicating devices on the market.

Ambient sells a lamp ball that glows different colors to display real-time stock market trends, weather and pollen forecasts for $150, excluding shipping costs.

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