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Can Sony Cut It As A Tablet Brand With Its Two New Android Devices?

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Consumer electronics giant Sony (NYSE: SNE) has finally, formally confirmed what people have long been expecting the company to do for months now: it has announced its entry into the nascent-but-much-hyped “media tablet” market, with the launch of two new Android devices. But will Sony have what it takes to pick up a strong following in a market that has been created and, so far, dominated by Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and its iPad?

The tablets, currently codenamed the S1 and S2, will be built using Honeycomb, Google’s Android operating system optimized for tablets. To date, there have been only a handful of models released using this OS — apparently because Google (NSDQ: GOOG) has restricted the source code in an attempt to control fragmentation in how the OS gets implemented.

The S1, notes Sony, will have an off-center point of gravity (it’s heavier at the top, when viewed in landscape mode), designed for “comfortable use for hours.” It will have 9.4-inch screen.

Meanwhile, the S2 will build the dual-screen form factor that has popped up with other computer makers such as Acer (the Iconia) and Kyocera. It will have two 5.5-inch displays for “easy portability”.

But even these basic points could be moving targets. Not only are the S1 and S2 only “codenames” but as you might notice from the illustration above, Sony notes that even the designs of the two devices are still subject to change.

One potentially big vote in Sony’s favor: its brand. The company regularly gets top marks among consumers when it comes to general consumer electronics brands, with a recent survey from Harris Interactive putting it at number-one.

That currency hasn’t given Sony the dominance you would expect in handsets — if anything, Sony Ericsson (NSDQ: ERIC), its mobile JV with Ericsson, has been losing market share because as the mobile tide slowly moves towards smartphones. Sure, it has launched some compelling smartphones, it has also continued to offer a large range of feature phones in its mix. It’s telling that Sony has chosen to forge ahead with a tablet strategy on its own brand rather than that of the JV.

And it’s still early days for tablets. If tablets these continued to be played up as “media” devices — in the same category as DVD players, stereos and televisions — rather than an extension of the mobile device portfolio, Sony may have a chance to draw in more users that have traditionally looked at Sony as the “quality” brand in the former category.

One potentially big vote against Sony: the use of Android. On the positive side, Google’s OS has been an incredible force in the mobile world for driving a veritable explosion in the number of smartphones and tablets that have entered the market as a result of the OS essentially being free to use by OEMs. That, in turn, has led to the development of an enormous amount of innovative content and services.

Sony itself has been laying the groundwork for a huge range of content services, covering areas like music and video with cloud services like Qriocity, and its e-book service, Sony Reader, which already gets used on its e-reader devices. These are natural complements, and key differentiators, for their tablets.

One could even argue that Apple’s build-up of content services (and those from smaller players like HTC, etc.) have been all geared with a view to one day competing against Sony, when it finally decided to enter this market. That would certainly go some way to explaining why Apple was keen to bar the Sony Reader from its App Store.

But Android has so far had a very patchy track record in tablets. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab has been an early and bright example of success, although it has sold significantly less well than the iPad.

And aside from that, there have been other launches that have been considerably more painful: most recently, this week an analyst at Global Equities (via Fortune) noted that Motorola (NYSE: MMI) has sold between 25,000 and 120,000 of its Xoom tablets — the first device released using Google’s Honeycomb OS — since its launch in March. Compare that to estimates in the half-million-range for the iPad2, in its opening week alone.

The Honeycomb OS, writes Global Equities analyst Trip Chowdry, is “incomplete,” “unstable,” has a “poor UI” and is “dead on arrival.”

Now the big question is whether Sony will have learned from Moto’s mistakes, or whether history will repeat itself. Again.

Sony says the tablets will be available in the autumn of 2011.

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