Yesterday, Japanese consumer electronics and media giant Sony (NYSE:SNE) announced plans to launch a line of portable digital media players that use flash memory. Its broad product range of Network Walkmen represents a definite swipe at Apple Computer (NASDAQ:AAPL) and its iPod Shuffle, but investors have to wonder about the relevance of most things Sony does these days outside the video game business.

'Twas a time when Sony's entry into the marketplace was enough to terrify competitors. One need only look at the video game business and what happened to Sega, no longer making consoles, and Nintendo (Pink Sheets: NTDOY.PK), holding on mostly to handheld market share, to see what Sony is -- or was -- capable of. In digital music, however, Sony brass has admitted strategic missteps that have cost the company time, money, and market share.

I'll confess a fondness for Sony, as well as a hope that it figures out how to reclaim the magic that in my younger years made its name synonymous with nearly every bit of electronic media you could put in your house or on your person. More recently, it's been outmaneuvered or outmuscled in many categories, digital music just one among them. Turns out Sony can't be all things to all people, even though it tries to be. Why else would it keep developing the interesting, but relatively niche-oriented, MiniDisc product line, of which I am an owner?

But this is no niche market. A Sunday afternoon visit to a Washington, D.C.-area Apple store revealed a virtual parade of future iPod owners willing to bide their time waiting for the chance to hear a casually dressed salesperson utter those five little words: "What size and what color?"

When they get home, meanwhile, you can bet that "Install iTunes Software" and "Visit iTunes Store" are quickly added to the ol' to-do list. Apple has put together a nice little network that reinforces itself. Even if Sony can leverage its brand to build out big revenue streams in digital music devices -- and Sony may yet find a way to capitalize on its being a record company, too -- getting what Apple's got will be a lot tougher.

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Fool contributor Dave Marino-Nachison owns both Sony and Apple products but holds no stock in the companies mentioned.