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DVD-Audio Tops Panasonic Line

Looking to capture a dominant position in digital video categories, Panasonic introduced a host of new products, including its first DVD-Audio players and the first TV/VCR/DVD combination, at its recent annual sales meeting in Kona, Hawaii, where it celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Panasonic president Don Iwatani (left) and Matsushita America chairman Yoshi Kobe, flank corporate chairman Masaharu Matsushita as they tour the product display at Panasonic's 40th anniversary sales meeting in Hawaii.

During the event, chairman Masharu Matsushita announced that Panasonic achieved in 1998 a long-term goal of a 10% share of the color television market, and he immediately set a new goal of 30% - a target he said is attainable given the company's leadership role in digital technology.

Panasonic also claimed 1998 market share leadership in VCRs (15%) and TV/VCRs (29%) and said it took a 20% share of DVD players and 22% of portable CD audio players.

Among the most exceptional new product demonstrations were two prototype DVD-Audio players that Panasonic plans to introduce this fall, by which time copyright and anti-piracy issues are expected to be resolved. Both players will play DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, CD-Audio and Video CD and will carry street prices in the $1,000 range.

A Panasonic model will be geared for video enthusiasts, while a step-up Technics model with advanced audio features will be targeted for the audio end of the market and will be accompanied by audio components that have specifications matching DVD-Audio performance.

Panasonic expects the players to be ready for in-store demos in late summer, when it will begin running ads to generate consumer interest in the product.

Also introduced was a 27" TV/VCR/DVD combo unit due out this August at about a $1,000 street price. It will include a four-head Hi-Fi VCR but will not record DVD videos onto VHS tape.

Also shown was the progressive-scan DVD-Video model, which will be introduced when outstanding copy-protection issues are resolved.

The company's recently introduced second-generation DVD PalmTheater (DVD-L50), with a flip-up LCD widescreen monitor and three-hour play time on a rechargeable battery, was also shown. The DVD-L50 carries a $1,099.95 list.

Panasonic also introduced seven new home DVD models at $399-$699, including a five-disc changer at $549 and a karaoke model at $699. The company is continuing a Divx DVD player at $499.

Meanwhile, Panasonic predicted industry shipments of DVD Video players in 1999 will top 2.5 million units, a figure somewhat lower than the 3 million recently predicted by Toshiba. Worldwide, it expects player sales of 5.2 million this year, 10 million next year, and 16 million in 2001, when U.S. demand is seen hitting 7 million.

In Digital TV, Panasonic introduced three 16:9 models, starting with a replacement for its 56W" projection set (announced prior to the recent NAB) that displays the 720p ATSC format in addition to 480p and 1080i. It will ship in September with the same $5,999.95 list as the current model.

The company said its 34W" 16:9 SuperFlat direct-view HDTV-ready monitor will ship in June at $5,999.95 and will be followed early next year by a version with built-in tuners. It also introduced an SDTV-capable 42W" (480p) plasma-display panel listing at $15,999.95.

Panasonic also announced two new 4:3 SDTV-ready projection TVs, a 51" at $2,599.95 and a 61" at $3,099.95, due in late summer.

In other digital video categories, Panasonic unveiled two digital DVC camcorders - a segment that it estimates is accounting for 15%-18% of total camcorder sales. Both units offer LCD monitor panels, IEEE-1394 FireWire connections, 50% longer battery life, and CompactFlash removable media slots for digital still pictures. They carry suggested retails of $999.95 and $1,099.95.

For the analog VHS-C camcorder format, Panasonic announced a unit featuring built-in still photo capability at $1,199.95.

For the digital camera category, Panasonic unveiled two units with 1.3 million-pixel CCD imagers capable of 1,280 x 960 resolution images. The models are priced at $599.95 and $799.95, respectively, with the latter coming with modem card and software that lets users transfer photos directly from the camera over phone lines to any waiting PC. Panasonic will offer receiving software for desktop PCs free from its web site.

Another future product included a 13GB hard-disk-based video editor that is expected to retail for less than $2,000. The unit will store up to one hour of motion video at a time for editing and will display multiple screens at one time in PIP windows on a connected monitor.

In part to support its expansive DVD lineup, the company also showed two new surround sound home theater system packages, incorporating decoding for both Dolby Digital and DTS surround sound formats. A minisystem will carry a $799 suggested retail, and a separate component system (330 watts of total power) will carry a $999.95 suggested retail.

Panasonic will be backing its digital A/V products with extensive ad and promotional efforts. They include a the Panasonic Digital Train, a massive van that will make a national tour of campuses and malls, TV commercials for DVD featuring a Jimmy Durante-like voice-over, a series of four-page magazine inserts for HDTV tied to ABC, CBS and NBC programs and ads supporting HDTV broadcasts. Panasonic already has an agreement in principle to run on ABC programs and its in talks with CBS and NBC.

Panasonic showed no home satellite receiving equipment at the meeting, but dealers said they were told the company plans to introduce a TV with built-in reception capability for both HD and standard DirecTv programming.

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