Sony pulls HDTV plug

Sony Electronics did a major about-face on its HDTV plans last week, delaying the introduction of new integrated HDTV sets due to an engineering problem, but one executive called it a "blessing in disguise."

Sony has had difficulties developing a chipset to support the "5C" digital encryption standard, a copy-protection scheme it has aggressively promoted, and will be unable to meet its production deadlines for 2000. "It's an unhappy circumstance," said Vic Pacor, president of Sony's Home Network Products Co.

The rollback means that Sony will have no new HDTV set this year. The company had planned to launch six sets, priced at $4,000 to $7,000, this year. They were to include integrated ATSC tuners and IEEE 1394 interfaces that would connect to digital cable set-tops to display premium HDTV programming.

However, Pacor said, because of the uncertainties about the DTV transmission standard, "there was almost a sense of relief not to be bringing a product to market with an integrated ATSC tuner in light of the controversy since CES."

Although Pacor doesn't believe that the 8-VSB modulation scheme should be changed to COFDM, he acknowledged a "looming threat" that the standard would be revisited. He considers it alarming to hear that the industry is "thinking about a change to COFDM" when Sony is planning to build millions of HDTV sets.

"The word 'think' itself is inappropriate in [that] context," he said.

Sony will try to get at least one widescreen HDTV display, with or without an integrated ATSC tuner, to market this fall, Pacor said. The company is also due to launch a $799 combination HDTV/DirecTV set-top. Currently, Sony sells only a $7,499 34-inch HDTV set and a $9,999 65-inch set, both of which are a year old and significantly more expensive than competitors' 2000 offerings.