Olaf Olafsson: Sony's Jack Of All Media

He's only 29, but already Olaf Olafsson has published two best-selling books in Scandinavia, a collection of stories and a novel. His father was a novelist, so his passion for writing isn't surprising. What's remarkable is that he finds the time to do it. Olafsson, a native of Iceland, has spent the past few years working as an executive at Sony USA, and can write only at night and on weekends. "I'm fortunate in that I don't need a lot of sleep," he says. "It's no great credit to me--I'm just biologically lucky."

He's been pretty lucky professionally, too. A protege of Sony USA Vice-Chairman Mickey Schulhof, Olafsson was recently named president of the new Sony Electronic Publishing Corp. A big part of his task is to help Sony cash in on the sounds and images produced by its record and movie companies--and in turn create products that boost demand for its hardware. The possibilities are dazzling. Using compact-disk-reading units hooked to personal computers, consumers can use software that offers sound, still and moving images, and text, all in one package.

"Let's say a child is doing a research piece on Mozart," Olafsson says. "He could put the encyclopedia in the CD-ROM drive, type `Mozart' on his PC, and get a list of articles about Mozart's life and music. If he wanted, he could hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at the click of a button."

FAST LEARNER. Olafsson's creative talents, coupled with a strong background in physics, make him a prime candidate to become what Schulhof calls the "new breed" of Sony manager. As Schulhof sees it, Sony managers currently fall into one of two camps: electronics or entertainment. Schulhof claims he and Sony CEO Norio Ohga are the only two with "conversational ability" in both. "I'm training Olaf" to be the third, he says.

Olafsson may be a Schulhof protege, but he's no clone. While Schulhof spent his boyhood playing with a ham radio set, Olafsson wrote fiction and played center-forward on a local soccer club. He later got a full scholarship to Brandeis University--where Schulhof got his doctorate--and chose a science-and-math major. "I decided to study something I didn't know anything about," he explains. Evidently, he learned fast. Says physics Professor Stephan Berko: "This kid was absolutely brilliant."

Berko says he urged Olafsson to stay in academia, but when he declined, the professor got on the phone to Schulhof. "Mickey had always told me that if we had a really outstanding student who simply didn't want to go into research, to call him. Knowing Mickey's standards, I never sent him anyone until Olaf came along."

Olafsson joined Sony in 1984 as a researcher for a San Jose (Calif.) unit that sells CD-ROM drives and other computer peripherals, mainly to other manufacturers for use in their own machines. Since 1989, he has also worked as a vice-president for special projects for Sony USA, reporting to Schulhof in New York. There, he helped plan the new company while evaluating new technologies and investment opportunities.

With Electronic Publishing, he'll be competing with IBM, Time Warner Inc., and several other big companies that have recently entered the market for multimedia home entertainment. Olafsson has spent the past few weeks sounding out Sony artists about licensing their images and sounds for use in the new technology. A good number, both with Sony Music and Columbia Pictures, have shown "strong interest" in the new media, he says.

Olafsson faces a hardware challenge, too. While roughly 10 million homes have PCs, only a tiny fraction also have CD-ROM units. Now used mainly for business, the units run from $800 to $1,000. To lure customers, Olafsson plans to bundle CD-ROM units to plug into PCs with headphones and several software packages--and sell it all for under $700.

Meanwhile, he still has time for his writing. His novel, Marketplace of the Gods, about industrial espionage at a Japanese company, is being translated into French and German. His second comes out in October. It's about a 72-year-old Icelandic man who has lived in New York City since World War II. But don't look for it on disk. Novels, says Olafsson, are one form of entertainment still best enjoyed on paper.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.