Sony, put the gun down

August 08, 2004

There is no doubt that Sony's new Network Walkman Digital Music Player is a wonderful little device. It looks great, has an insane battery life, ships with a decent-sized HDD (20GB), and weighs just 3.8oz. The problem though is that it doesn't play MP3 files. The user is left to use Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 or ATRAC3Plus formats, which means that any MP3 file you want to put on the player must first be converted — a very time-consuming process — I'm sure Joe User's just chomping at the bit.

By restricting the player to just its format, Sony has also severely restricted its prospective userbase, which will now be limited to clueless end-users and those few willing (and patient enough) to convert their entire collections. I'd guess that a good number of iPod users, whom I'm sure Sony would like to steal away from Apple, are not iTunes users at all (or only in a very limited capacity), which means that Sony had a chance to move them away from the iPod (hell, I looked at the device myself), but because they locked it down I can't think of anyone who would even consider it. Sony is offering no compelling reason to switch and is likely dissuading most people by requiring them to take the unprecedented step of converting their MP3s. As for those who've actually used iTunes to build up their collections, it seems that Sony is too late to the game and will probably miss that group altogether — I just can't see Joe User cracking the iTunes' AAC files (FairPlay DRM) and then converting these unprotected files to either MP3 or WMV and then finally converting these to ATRAC3.

Advice for Sony and Others

Well, Sony, your first move should probably be to take care of the foot you just shot. Next, and this goes for all of you digital music device manufacturers, make sure your device can play the most ubiquitous and unprotected format available. If it can't, it's a good bet that it's dead in the water and is going to fail, or at least not going to do nearly as well as it would otherwise. I don't think it's too terrible to limit the device to only one proprietary format (after all, the intention is to get people to purchase music from your online store), but don't then deny users the ability to play other open formats, especially the format that's not only the most familiar to consumers but that also spawned all of this digital music madness in the first place.

This point is likely obvious to anyone reading this, which begs an obvious question: why did no one at Sony see the flaw in their logic? Can someone please explain to me what they were trying to accomplish by locking out MP3? I'm serious, if you know (or think you know), I'd like to hear it.

Advice for End-users

If you actually pay for music (I've read that people still do this  :P) and can't find somewhere online that sells what you want as an unprotected MP3 file, then don't buy it online. Buy the CD, rip the album yourself, and keep the CD so that if and when a newer, better format is available and you feel the need to make the transition, it won't cost you anything but time. Oh how I want to discuss on this site the way in which I gather and store music, but, umm, I can't really shouldn't.

I'll be curious to see what happens when the iTunes format (or any of the other online stores' DRM formats) dies out or is improved and all the people who have spent a decent amount of money on their collections want their music in the newer, better format, no doubt arguing that it costs the music provider nothing but bandwidth (as opposed to vinyl --> 8-track --> cassette --> CD --> dvd-audio --> etc).

To steal a line from Goodfellas:

  • "My new device won't play format X, can I re-download my songs in format Y?" "Fuck you, pay me." - iTunes Music Store
  • "You guys just came out with format X². I'd like to upgrade my collection from format X to format X²." "Fuck you, pay me." - Sony Connect
  • "My hard drive died and I need to re-download all of my music." "Fuck you, pay me." - Walmart Music Downloads

I'm not saying that the music provider is right or wrong in these cases, but I'm pretty sure that the above responses will be (or are?) what one can expect.

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