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Sales of Sony Corp.’s Vaio personal computer, which was a hit when introduced in fiscal 1997, have fallen off, with shipments in fiscal 2002 plunging below the previous year’s levels for the first time.

“Sales used to be good, but now we are at a crossroads,” Sony Chairman Nobuyuki Idei said.

Sony put a new Vaio model on the market on May 24 in a bid to revive sales, but industry analysts are not giving it high marks.

According to Multimedia Research Institute, domestic Vaio sales in fiscal 2002 totaled 1.25 million units, 290,000 fewer than in the preceding year, with its share of the PC market dropping to 11.1 percent from 12.7 percent the year before.

This is in sharp contrast to the growing shares of Sony’s domestic rivals, including NEC Corp., Fujitsu Ltd. and Toshiba Corp.

The industry analysts blamed slow Vaio sales on the domestic rivals’ improvements of their designs and strengthened functions for linking the computers to television sets and other audiovisual equipment, making it difficult to differentiate between the products of Sony and its rivals.

Sony had led the market in computers that can be linked to acoustic instruments, enabling users to listen to music transferred from them to minidisc players. But its rivals have begun doing the same.

Sony was also quick to put into practical use the function enabling images to be transmitted from the computers to TV screens, but a Sony official in charge of public relations said, “We think is it difficult for customers to operate such computers, including how to link the two.”

In January, Toshiba marketed a new version of its Dynabook notebook computer series in white, targeted at women. The white Dynabook became an immediate hit and is now in short supply.

Toshiba is thus increasing sales with products with good design, a feature that used to be Sony’s specialty.

All the models in the new Vaio PC series Sony began selling on May 24 are equipped with DVD drives and are smaller than other notebook computers, but an industry analyst said, “It doesn’t look like a Sony product, because there are features.”

The Vaio is also priced higher than other comparable computers, and the analysts said Sony’s key to survival is whether it can develop original next-generation PCs that can attract consumers like the Walkman once did.

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