March 8, 2005
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Hoping to regain some of its luster in a market dominated by the iPod, the company that brought us the Walkman is coming out with a big lineup of portable music players.
In unveiling nine new players, Sony Corp. is taking particular aim at Apple Computer Inc.'s slim new iPod Shuffle.
That's because, like the Shuffle, the new Sony players use flash memory, a storage medium more durable, lightweight and compact than its larger-capacity cousin, the hard drive.
The new Sony players also support the generic MP3 audio format, which is what most people use when converting their music CD collections to digital files. That's a major concession for Sony, which had tried until recently to persuade consumers to only use its proprietary audio format, called Atrac.
Industry analysts seemed impressed by Sony's latest move.
"It's like the empire strikes back," said Richard Doherty of The Envisioneering Group. "Sony has taken a lot of quiet and loud criticism and has turned it into a brilliant line of players."
The lineup includes a set of cigarette lighter-sized models, a bit more expensive than the iPod Shuffle but with a much longer advertised battery life - 50 hours of playback time with a rechargeable battery compared to Apple's 12 hours.
And unlike the Shuffle, the Sony players have bright, 3-line screens to display song information.
A 512-megabyte model costs $130 and a 1-gigabyte model costs $180. Models with an FM tuner each cost $20 more. By comparison, Apple's shuffle is priced at $99 for 512 MB and $149 for 1 GB. The models will be available in May.
A second set of players, set to ship later this month, are roundish, with a diameter slightly larger than a poker chip. They run on AAA batteries, which Sony says will give the user 70 hours of playback time on a single battery. The prices range from $90 for 256 MB of memory to $150 for 1 GB of memory.
A third design is water-resistant, costing $130 for 256 MB of memory.
"We know we've been behind a bit," acknowledged Kelly Davis, a Sony product manager for digital players. "But we definitely want to be a strong contender in 2005."
Analysts don't expect the Japanese electronics giant to dethrone Apple, which holds more than a 60 percent share in the fast-growing portable music player market. But some predict Sony can climb into a No. 2 position by year's end, surpassing a slew of other pocketable players that are based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows audio format.
Last year, Sony began shipping the Walkman Digital, a palm-sized, aluminum-encased player with a 20 GB hard drive that retails for about $350.