About two months ago, Rob Wiesenthal was sitting in bed at his home in New York, reading a magazine, when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye.
It was a photo of his 13-year-old son, Richard, at a friend's birthday party. The picture had been snapped just six minutes earlier and was posted to his son's Facebook page. It popped up on a device called the Dash, on his bedside table, that Wiesenthal was testing out for his company, Sony Corp.
"It was one of those spooky moments," said Wiesenthal, who is chief financial officer for Sony's American business. "It's much easier to follow my son on the Dash than by asking him."
Last week, Sony started selling the Dash, a $199 device with a screen the size of a paperback book designed to sit on kitchen counters, nightstands and even bathroom vanities constantly serving up a stream of informational nuggets from the Web. News, weather, traffic, Facebook status updates, Twitter streams and Netflix movies are among the more than 1,000 free applications available on the Dash.
Some people call the Dash a glorified alarm clock. Others say it's a personal Internet viewer. Sony is calling it the future.
It was first singled out by Sony Chief Executive Howard Stringer in January 2009 during his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Stringer showed off the Dash to several thousand attendees as an example of the type of product his company would be making more of, and he vowed that more than 90% of all Sony devices will be able to connect to the Internet within three years.
"It's the first new product since Howard delivered his speech that fully delivers on that promise," said Richard Doherty, a technology analyst with the Envisioneering Group. "For those who grew up with Sony's Trinitron TVs and Walkman players, this brings back a little bit of magic from the old Sony that's been sorely missed in the last few years."
Once the undisputed titan of consumer electronics, Sony has lost billions of dollars in recent years as it struggled to streamline its sprawling businesses, which include movie studios, record labels, consumer electronics and financial services.
While Sony continues to be a major player in electronics, it has had to share the stage with aggressive rivals such as Apple Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and Vizio Inc.
When Stringer took the reins of Sony in 2005, he embarked on a shake-up of the Japanese giant, slashing its workforce, shutting costly factories, cutting marginal businesses and reorganizing its senior management. Four and a half years later, the fruits of his labor are starting to appear. The Dash in some ways crystallizes Stringer's efforts.
Developed on a minuscule budget by a "skunk works" of engineers and executives spanning Sony, the device departs from Sony's traditional path in a number of ways, said Andrew Sivori, director of Sony's digital imaging group, which is spearheading the Dash launch.
First, it is one of only a handful of Sony devices developed primarily in the U.S. The vast majority of electronic products are driven out of Sony's headquarters in Japan.
Second, the device required multiple units within Sony to create, including Sony Music and Sony Pictures Television, both of which are providing content for the Dash, as well as designers and engineers in the U.S. and Japan. In the past, Sony has been known for having divisions that have no clue what goes on in other units.
"For years, the company has been talking about knocking down silos within the company," Sivori said. "A lot of times, it's been a real challenge, and that cooperation was fairly superficial. The Dash took a much deeper level of integration for the company."
The Dash also differs in that it relies on technology from outside Sony, something the proud Japanese company had been loath to do in the past. Specifically, the Dash uses software licensed from Chumby Industries, a tiny San Diego startup.
The Dash's touch screen draws the inevitable contrast with Apple's iPad, which launched several weeks earlier. But Wiesenthal said the two devices are like night and day.
"The Dash is for the home," Wiesenthal said. "It's always on and always delivering your own personalized content. You don't have to interact with it. The iPad is a portable device that's useful for surfing and streaming. But it requires interaction."
It remains to be seen whether consumers will bite, particularly with the economy dampening any appetite for discretionary spending. As an entirely novel product category, the Dash is as discretionary as it gets. To entice buyers, Sony designed the device to cost less than $200 and is launching it with more than 1,000 free apps. It's also putting the device front and center at its Sony Style stores, hoping that shoppers will understand what it is after getting a chance to play with it.
"It's a dashboard for your online life," said Wiesenthal, who took a personal interest in the device and has up to four Dashes in home at any given time. "This shows that if you organize yourself properly and you have the right people in place, you can win here. There are many signs of that [at Sony]. The Dash is one of them."