Some products respond to consumers' needs; others, like Sony's airboard, seek to create them. Like sending e-mails from the pool, or curling up in bed with your favorite sitcom. This futuristic gadget combines the functions of a television, a dvd player and the Internet into a portable tablet the size of a place mat. If it catches on, it could change the concept of being digital at home.
At 1.5 kg, the airboard is light enough to carry anywhere in the house, and can send and receive data wirelessly from a base station hooked up to home-entertainment equipment. A 10.4-in. (26-cm) lcd screen delivers vivid moving images or can serve as a digital photo album, and a touch-panel display eliminates the need for a keyboard. Sony, which began selling the device in Japan late last year, touts it as the Walkman of the information age. "It's amazing," says company president Kunitake Ando, who loftily describes the device as a gateway connecting the home to the outside world and eventually linking all appliances within. "The wireless environment will become quite common pretty soon."
I tried out the airboard in my Tokyo apartment, and I have to admit: it's way cool. First of all, airboarding is easy. I didn't crack the instruction manual once to get the thing set up and this is from someone who has trouble finding the "record" button on the vcr. Relaxing on my balcony, I could call up the airboard's on-screen remote control and start playing a video. By pressing another button, I could Net surf or check my e-mail account, while a split screen let me simultaneously watch my movie. The airboard's base station the size of a shoe box doubles as a stand and battery charger. There's a slot for inserting a Sony memory stick, the gum-stick-sized cartridge used to store photos and other digital files.
But the airboard is not for everybody. At $1,065, it costs as much as a laptop but isn't meant for serious computing. Checking e-mail is easy, but a 56-kbps modem makes for pretty poky surfing. The touch panel is fine for sending quick messages, but pushing the on-screen buttons is tedious for anything longer. And it has a short leash: airboarders can drift only 30 m from the base station, a distance that may be fine for Japan's rabbit-hutch homes but is too weak for many rambling American houses.
In fact, the airboard seems ideal for Japan, a nation that is notoriously PC-phobic and prefers other ways of getting online, such as via tiny, mobile Net phones. Sony won't say how many airboards it has sold in Japan, but officials claim nearly 20,000 are being produced each month, and presumably they aren't just piling up in warehouses. Sony has big hopes for the U.S. market and will introduce the product there later this year.
Sony faces competition from Hitachi, which sells a similar device mainly for business use. And a few U.S. companies, like industrial giant Honeywell, have launched "Internet appliances" that offer Web access from anywhere in the home. But the airboard is unique in that it merges the Internet with conventional entertainment, linking home appliances from the PC to the TV into a single, seamless network. For consumers in over-gadgeted households, that might have immense appeal or the airboard might be viewed as one more appliance that's neat but not needed.