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Sunday, May 09, 2004  

Technology: Sony wants MP3 fans to Connect

There was a time when megacorp Sony owned the hip music gadget market. Sure, Bang & Olufsen and Bose were popular with many audiophiles, but for the larger segment of the population seeking better quality, but somewhat reasonable prices, Sony was it. The slogan "It's a Sony," meant something. Sony's introduction of the portable music player 20 years ago sealed the deal.

But then, when Sony's mastery of music to go seemed complete, Apple claimed part of the market, hardware and content, for itself.

ZDnet's Anchordesk reports Sony is fighting back. Eliot van Buskirk tells us how.

For years, Sony has seemed reticent to embrace the Internet as a means of distributing music, despite its unique positioning as the only company in the world with a major music label, a computer hardware division, and a consumer electronics arm. But finally, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, Sony executives admitted that this is the year of the online music store and that it couldn't risk letting the likes of Apple steal the show, the way Sony itself did with its introduction of the Walkman more than 20 years ago. Yesterday, the company announced its own online music store, called Connect, to compete with Apple's market-leading iTunes Music Store and other services.

He reminds us that Sony previously, along with other music purveyors, refused agreements with online resellers. The success of Apple's iPod and iTunes Music Store, along with prosecutions of users of peer-to-peer services, has changed that. It is a brave new world, and Sony wants a piece of it. Connect will be entering a market with a bevy of competitors. They include Wal-Mart, second to iTMS in sells, Napster and BuyMusic.

Van Buskirk has tested the new service.

But these are different times, and Sony has finally decided to quit experimenting. Instead, it has released a full-featured online music store called Connect, embedded in its jukebox software, SonicStage. From initial inspection, the software and the store appear to run fairly smoothly and intuitively. Like iTunes, the store generally sells music downloads à la carte for 99 cents a pop and complete albums for $9.99, and it's designed to work with Sony audio devices. Although Apple is entrenched in the top MP3 player and MSP [music service provider] spots, Sony has two competitive advantages: it offers more than one portable device that can play the music it sells, and it owns a substantial catalog, so the company has to pay licensing fees only to the other labels. In contrast, Apple must pay Sony as well as the different labels, and it owns no music.

Van Buskirk acknowledges that there is still no way to play MP3s on Sony's proprietary Memory Stick modules. The alternative to hard drives, secure digital and compact flash devices, is favored for Sony portable devices, including its Clie personal digital assistants. But, there is a strange bifurcation between the computer and the portable device when it comes to installing music. One must convert the music into Sony's proprietary OpenMG codec on one's hard drive and then transfer it to the MP3 player.

Another oddity is that Sony has blocked sharing of its music store downloads on networks. Short of hacks, an individual user's music remains his, even when he wants to share.

I'm not as sanguine as van Buskirk about the potential of Sony's efforts. iTMS is well thought of and has a significant headstart. I suspect owners of Clies and other devices that support Memory Stick will be annoyed anew. And, having a new codec to fiddle with is not exactly what consumers have been clamoring for. Another dark cloud, pointed out by a commenter to van Buskirk's column, is Connect only works with Windows 98SE and later. It will be interesting to see if Connect has made any inroads into Apple and Wal-mart's domination of the online music store market a year from now.

1:33 PM