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CEO Hirai to network Sony content and gadgets

Sony's Walkman, a portable music player, is displayed in Tokyo
Sony's Walkman, a portable music player, is displayed in Tokyo

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) - Incoming Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai aims to re-shape the company by linking hardware and software through online networks - a model he used at the PlayStation maker's computer entertainment unit.

"It's a bigger concept we can grow into a bigger space for Sony overall," Hirai, 51, said in an interview with foreign media at the company's Tokyo headquarters.

"It's a business where hardware drives software and software drives hardware, and it's all tied up by the network," he added,

referring to efforts to sell games, movies and other content to connected PlayStation owners.

Hirai formally succeeds Howard Stringer as CEO on April 1, with the once-stellar consumer electronics brand heading for what it warned last week would be a much bigger-than-expected $2.9 billion annual loss, its fourth in a row.

Under intense pressure from investors and ratings agencies to staunch losses at the sprawling electronics group, Hirai pledged not to flinch from tough decisions to trim costs, and renewed a promise to return the TV business to profit in two years.

"We have to make some hard decisions on where there are some redundancies and reduce the fixed costs in a variety of different areas," he said, pointing to sales units in Japan, Europe and the United States, supply chains and Tokyo headquarters functions as areas where cuts could be made.

Credit ratings agency Standard and Poor's on Wednesday cut its long-term debt rating on Sony and warned it may drop it another notch within a year if Hirai fails to stem TV losses and deliver a significant boost to profitability. Sony was also downgraded by Moody's last month.

BIG BLEED

The TV division has lost more than $11 billion over eight fiscal years. Together, Sony, Panasonic and Sharp expect to lose $17 billion this year alone, highlighting the savaging of Japan's electronics industry by foreign rivals led by South Korea's Samsung Electronics, weak demand and a strong yen.

Better products would, Hirai said, add as much as 40 billion yen ($520 million) in profit, with cost improvements adding another 50 billion yen, as part of a strategy he described as "defense and offense".

As well as weak global TV demand, Sony has been hammered by last year's flooding in Thailand that ruptured supply chains, a big one-off charge for exiting a flat panel joint venture with Samsung, and smart competition from Apple and Samsung that has squeezed market share in TVs, smartphones and other gadgets.

Hirai predicted that LCD technology would remain the main battlefield in TVs for at least three years, before next generation technology takes hold.

Sony shares have jumped 13 percent to a 14-week high of 1,544 yen since Hirai was named as the next CEO. The stock slumped more than 60 percent during Stringer's 7-year reign.

A Sony veteran of 28 years, Hirai was credited with reviving the PlayStation gaming operations through aggressive cost-cutting, in competition with Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Xbox.

A year ago, Hirai, a fluent English speaker, was promoted to head the consumer products and services business, overseeing Sony's network operations. He was also at the forefront of efforts to counter hackers who accessed Sony customers' personal details, including credit card information.

He takes over after a period of cost cutting by Stringer, a rare foreign CEO in Japan who sold off TV factories in Spain, Slovakia and Mexico and outsourced more than half of the group's production to outside companies.

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