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When Sony ’s challenger to the iPad, the Tablet S, arrives in electronics shops this weekend, it will test the Japanese group’s ability to compete with Apple in software and services as much as hardware.

The touch screen Tablet S, first unveiled in the spring, has won over some reviewers with its distinctive wedge-shaped design, which is intended to make it more comfortable to hold for long periods when reading, e-mailing or surfing the internet. Sony hopes the shape will set it apart from an army of iPad clones.

But it is Sony’s “ecosystem” of entertainment content – from PlayStation games to internet-streamed music – that will bear much of the burden for the device’s success or failure. Sony faces a daunting task: in the past two months both Hewlett-Packard and Sharp have discontinued shortlived tablet offerings due to poor sales.

According to IDC, a market research firm, seven out of 10 tablets sold in the second quarter were iPads. With demand for tablets increasing rapidly, however – global shipments were up fourfold in the quarter versus the same period last year, according to IDC – Sony and others see a chance to win over later adopters who may be less wedded to the Apple brand.

Sony has been one of the most visible casualties of Apple’s wildly successful expansion from personal computers into consumer electronics. Since Apple’s iPod displaced the Sony Walkman as the world’s favourite portable music player a decade ago, the U.S. group’s share price has soared 40-fold while Sony’s has halved.

Yet analysts say Sony remains the electronics maker with the greatest potential to match one of Apple’s key strengths: its ability to pair appealing gadgets with convenient and wide-ranging digital content distribution, for example the iPod and the iTunes music store.

Sony’s movie studios, record labels and video game franchises should give it an edge in content, but so far execution has been lacking. It is now moving towards Apple’s model, however. Sony’s PlayStation Network online game platform boasts 77m users, and is recovering from a damaging hacker attack earlier this year.

Sony will soon launch a new, network-friendly PlayStation portable console, and it has introduced a “PlayStation-lite” mobile phone through its Sony Ericsson joint venture.

The Tablet S – which is to be followed by the slimmer, foldable Tablet P later this year – is also configured to play PlayStation games, as well as to swap content wirelessly with Sony televisions, Blu-ray video players and other devices. Like tablets from Samsung and other Apple challengers, it uses Google’s Android operating system.

Sony is selling the 16 gigabyte version of the Tablet S for $499 in the US and €479 in Europe. That is the same as the iPad’s starting price – perhaps too expensive to cut into Apple’s huge lead, say analysts. The 32 GB version costs $599 or €579.

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