Don't call it a comeback yet, but Sony Corp. has a new lineup of digital music players that are slicing into the popularity of Apple Computer's iPod device in Japan.

Apple is still squashing Sony in Europe and North America, where the iPod has achieved iconic status and a big selling point is the availability of iTunes, an easy-to-use music downloading service that has not yet been launched in Japan.

While Apple remains the top seller of hard drive players in Japan, there has been a decisive momentum swing in the Japanese market, with Sony securing the top position for memory-type players in both May and June, knocking Apple and its iPod shuffle device into second place.

Translating that success overseas will not be easy, but boosting sales in Japan is an important first step for Sony as it tries to reclaim the lead in the portable audio market it helped pioneer with the Walkman cassette player 26 years ago.

"There is no question that Sony has the potential of being much more competitive," said Tim Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, a U.S.-based research firm. "It could emerge as a more formidable rival to Apple over the next three years."

Launched worldwide in March and April, Sony's new lineup of music players includes several models equipped with flash memory chips able to store 256, 512 megabytes or 1 gigabyte of data, and two players with hard disk drives.

Of those, Sony's gains in the Japanese market have come primarily from one line of flash memory players that have won over consumers with a long-lasting battery -- it can play up to 50 hours on one charge -- and a stylish design.

Resembling a small perfume bottle, the players have a rounded body that strikes a sharp contrast with the shuffle's rectangular shape and flat front. Sony's players also feature a display to view what music is playing, while the iPod shuffle does not.

"Design is one of the main factors consumers now look at when buying a portable audio player. They have become like accessories, so having something that looks good is a must," said Shinichi Iwata, who oversees marketing of the Walkman in Japan.

Sony's players are more expensive than the shuffle, but enough consumers seem willing to pay the extra price.

According to market research company BCN, Sony's share of the Japanese market for flash memory players went from just 4 percent in March to 16 percent in April and shot up to 27 percent in May and June. Apple's share has fallen to under 20 percent... (Continued Here)


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