Sony’s Fortunes Improve, From Rising Profit to a Return for Aibo


A demonstration of Aibo, Sony’s robot dog, in Tokyo on Wednesday. The mechanical pet, discontinued in 2006, is coming back, and will go on sale in Japan in January for about $1,750. Credit Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

TOKYO — Sony’s robot dog is getting a new lease on life. A decade after discontinuing Aibo, Sony said on Wednesday that it was bringing the mechanical canine back as an experiment in cuddly, consumer-friendly artificial intelligence.

Investors are giving Sony another chance, too.

Shares in the electronics and entertainment giant rose to their highest level in nearly a decade, a day after Sony projected what would be its largest-ever annual operating profit.

With its Trinitron televisions and Walkman portable tape players, Sony grabbed ahold of global consumers during Japan’s dizzying economic rise decades ago. But it has struggled more recently, losing ground to international competitors like Apple and Samsung.

Sony lost money for years on once-profitable products like televisions — which it could no longer make cheaply enough to keep up with plummeting prices — while failing to capitalize on the digital revolution that turned Apple and its ecosystem of connected products into a global powerhouse.

The Japanese company’s recent upswing, still a work in progress, is being driven by a mix of old and new businesses. Reorienting the company took years — and billions of dollars in restructuring charges — but the transformation is paying off, analysts say.

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It remains a bit player in smartphones, the product that made Apple’s fortune, but sustained demand for the devices has enriched Sony regardless. It is a major supplier of image-sensing circuits used in smartphone cameras, including the iPhone’s, which means it has shared, to some degree, in its competitor’s success.

Sony has also closed or sold off costly factories. It still sells televisions under its brand name, but — like Apple — its focus now is on design and marketing rather than production, which is increasingly left to contractors.

Other businesses, like the PlayStation video gaming line and an insurance company that Sony part-owns in Japan, have been steadily profitable. Its entertainment arm is more financially volatile, but it has lately profited from hits like “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

All of that added up to what Atul Goyal, an analyst at the securities firm Jefferies, called “blowout results” for Sony’s latest quarter.

The company said on Tuesday it had earned an operating profit — before taxes and other reductions — of 204 billion yen, or about $1.79 billion, in the three months through September. That was more than four times what it made in the same period last year.

Sony also upgraded its profit forecast for the full financial year, which ends in March, from ¥500 billion to ¥630 billion, which would be an all-time high if realized.

Investors piled into Sony’s shares on Wednesday in response. The stock closed up 11 percent at ¥4,918, the highest level since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. Japanese share prices have been buoyant across the board lately, and the country’s benchmark Nikkei 225 index has reached multidecade highs while Wall Street and other markets have also surged. Still, Sony was Japan’s most sought-after stock on Wednesday.

Lovers of the Aibo might be tempted to see karma at work. Sony first introduced the dog in 1999, saying it hoped robotic animal companions would become as ubiquitous as the real thing. That never happened, and Sony stopped making the Aibo in 2006, as it struggled to rein in losses. The mechanical dog’s small but devoted fan base was crushed.

Sony hopes that the world is now ready for artificially intelligent consumer robots, and that it can be a leader in the quickly advancing technology. The new Aibo uses Sony’s image sensors to interact with the world around it, and the company says it will be capable of learning, to a limited degree — for instance by repeating behaviors that owners praise.

The dog goes on sale in Japan in January for ¥198,000, or about $1,750.

“Combining robotics and A.I. is a way for Sony to play on its strengths,” Sony’s chief executive, Kazuo Hirai, who has driven the company’s restructuring since taking over in 2012, said at a news conference. “We have multiple projects in development, and one of them is Aibo.”

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