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By Jon Fortt
January 9, 2008
The innovative Rolly robotic speaker system, which is not yet available, is emblematic of the company’s improved fortunes. Image: Sony

LAS VEGAS – After a rough couple of years, Sony is beginning to look like its old self.

It might be too soon to declare a total comeback, but the electronics giant finally seems to have momentum. Those quarterly losses that at times topped $500 million as Sony (SNE) struggled to turn around its core electronics business? They’re not quite a distant memory. But here at the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony does exude a confidence it hasn’t shown in a while.

At a dinner with journalists Monday night, Sony Electronics President Stan Glasgow was upbeat. Despite the slowing economy, consumers responded to Sony’s risky $100 million marketing campaign, and turned out in force to buy high-definition TVs, camcorders and other gear in November and December. The industry support for Sony’s Blu-ray format for high-definition video is also encouraging. “I think across the board we demonstrated we had a good holiday season,” Glasgow said.

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Sony executives didn’t reveal specific sales figures but said that the company recorded double-digit revenue growth in 2007 over the previous year.

“I’m excited about our little video product, the Walkman,” Glasgow said. “It sold out over the holidays. I think we learned that going open and not keeping as much proprietary has some very positive effects sometimes.”

The new open mentality at Sony appears to be more than a fad. Sony Electronics executives said they were surprised by customer enthusiasm for its embrace of the MP3 and WMA formats in its media players. And even the corporate culture is opening up. At a recent corporate rally, Welsh-born CEO Howard Stringer sat company’s newest, most fired-up engineers closest to the stage, in the auditorium’s front-row seats in the middle section. The clear message: It will take new energy and new ideas to secure Sony’s future.

That message of change carried over to the Sony booth here in Las Vegas. Rather than organize products by business unit, Sony for the first time organized them by how they are used. Home entertainment devices are all together, whether they are game consoles, Blu-ray players or PCs. Mobility products are together as well. The approach is reminiscent of an Apple (AAPL) Store, where the company groups products together to show customers how they might get work done.

Not everything at Sony is going right. The PlayStation 3 and PSP are losing this round of the video game console wars to Nintendo’s Wii and DS. Sony Pictures Entertainment also faces challenges, with the Hollywood writer strike and declining DVD sales. But it’s the core electronics business that supplies 75% of Sony’s revenues, and the change in fortunes there brightens up everything else.

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