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New music stores are becoming as commonplace as new social networking sites, and Sony, inventor of the Walkman, has finally launched their effort. I wanted to write a fair review, rather than read the press releases and viscerally react at their stupidity, so I've taken the time to download the software for the new music store and I've poked around, all so that I can have a more informed visceral reaction.

I have two ways to summarize my basic reaction. One is, "This is your response to beat Apple?" The other is, "MINIDISC IS DEAD! GET OVER IT!"*

If you're interested in a slightly more detailed explanation of these reactions, you can read the extended entry, where I try to examine in more detail what Sony is trying to do, and why I think it's doomed.

* Caveat: This will probably play well in Japan where MiniDiscs have managed to survive, but it's mind-boggling to me that Sony is letting itself have it's ass handed to it on a platter in the American consumer electronics industry.

Before I launch into the specifics of the new music service, I'm going on a bit of a tangent and bitch about Sony's technology direction, which is important for understanding this latest offering. One of the major problems I've had with Sony in recent years is that they don't know when to admit defeat. Two examples of this are Memory Stick and MiniDisc:

Memory Stick: ignoring the fact that it's over twice as expensive as competing formats, let's try to even define what Memory Stick is. By my count, the current Memory Stick formats are:
- Memory Stick: the original, with a max capacity of 128MB
- Memory Stick MG: DRM compatible (they make you pay extra for this), max capacity of 128MB
- Memory Stick Duo: smaller form-factor
- Memory Stick PRO: higher capacity, not backwards compatible
- Memory Stick Select: actually two memory sticks in one to overcome the capacity limitations of the original Memory Stick, have to flip a switch to 'select' which stick you're using.

There are as many formats in the Memory Stick space as there is in the rest of the market combined.

Sony's poor planning with the original Memory Stick format screwed over a lot of customers. Owners of Sony digital cameras had to watch as owners of Compact-Flash-based digital cameras could buy 512MB flash cards cheap. When Sony finally did introduced a higher capacity Memory Stick PRO format, they then found out that it wasn't backwards compatible with their cameras. Owners of Memory-Stick-MG-based music players had additional difficulties; not only was the format more expensive for a feature they didn't even want (DRM), very few stores carried the soon-abandoned format.

Mini-Disc: First launched thirteen years ago. Popular in Japan, but mostly ignored in the US. Five years ago, it was still probably a good idea, but with the advent of hard-drive-based music players, it's day has come.

Research studies have shown that people find that organizing, categorizing, and managing information is tedious. While making a sixty-minute mix tape might be considered fun, in general, having to manage how your music collection gets divided up amongst various MiniDiscs is not. IMHO, one of the big selling points of an iPod is that you plug it into your computer, and all your music is on it. If I buy a new CD, the process of getting it onto the iPod is automatic.

MiniDiscs take away that automation. When I buy a new CD, I have to rip it, and then decide on which MiniDisc I'm going to stick it. Unless MiniDisc players have made an advance I'm not aware of, I will also have to choose in what order it goes on the MiniDisc.

Sony also speeds the demise of the format by steadfastly refusing to allow the players to playback MP3 natively. Sony's software will convert the MP3 into the MiniDisc format for you, but this extra step was a show-stopper for me, because it either forced me to use up twice the hard drive space so that I could store both MP3- and ATRAC-formatted music, or I had to wait over twice as long as the software did the conversion at the time of transfer. The user already has the music in MP3 format; insisting on ATRAC format does nothing to promote its brand, and only makes the experience worse.

The Music Store, Sony Connect: With the Connect music store, Sony is trying to build on the failure of its previous efforts; the store relies on Sony's existing line of music players, which are all based on these two formats. The Memory Stick line is designed to compete with the flash market, while Sony is attempting to position it's new 1GB capacity MiniDiscs in the hard drive player market. By basing their music store on Memory Stick and MiniDisc, rather than launching a new, innovative player (i.e. hard-drive-based or another large capacity format), Sony has already lost. Regardless of any other aspects of the music store, Sony cannot possibly win by betting on players that the market has already voted down. If Sony had managed to come out with a 4GB MiniDisc, they might have stood a chance (recent studies show that 4GB is the sweet spot for most buyer's music collections), but 1GB is a losing proposition. Even if we look forward to Sony's upcoming PSP handheld, the same, failing trend seems to emerge: details seem to indicate that the handheld will use a proprietary 1.8GB disc, which means that it will not have the same, seamless experience that's associated with the iPod.

Now, to examine the actual offering. You have to use Sony's own SonicStage player. I used the Version 1.0 of this player, and it was a piece of crap. They've revamped the 2.0 version to borrow some principles from iTunes, but it is still mostly the same, slow piece of crap that it always has been. There are no advanced features like song ratings and smart playlists; the smart playlists are important for taking away the organization burden I discussed earlier. Organizationally, Sony also made the stupid decision of making playlists and albums the same thing, which means that you have to burrow through your albums to find your playlists; there is also no simple drag-and-drop way of adding songs to a playlist like iTunes provides.

The UI is still bloated; there are pull down menus everywhere that are absurdly slow and also unnecessary. Inexplicably, the actual player sits in a window inside the SonicStage application. Here's a screenshot.

A minor quibble: the default setting is for SonicStage to burn "ATRAC CDs." What is the point of this feature? Only Sony CD players can play ATRAC CDs, and those that can play ATRAC CDs can play MP3 CDs. Another example of trading a good user experience for a phony attempt at product tie-in.

As for the music store, Sony Connect, it may be a little too early to evaluate just yet. The album view is atrocious and looks like it isn't finished yet. On a 20" LCD monitor, the album tracks don't even appear without scrolling down first past the illegible album reviews (screenshot). Also, the search is still slow and buggy -- it wasn't turning up artists that I knew were in the music store -- and there was one artist that I would click on that would cause the store to tell me that I wasn't connected to the Internet and reset itself (this wasn't a connection problem, it was always reproducible on the same artist).

The artist in question was Radiohead; if so, this is one of the only positives that I can name for the music store. Sony is close to becoming the largest music label and can funnel a lot of music content into the online marketplace. At the same time, I worry that Sony might use the Connect store to keep Sony artists off of other music services (a potentially illegal action), which would give Connect an artificial market advantage.

One other positive for the music store I can mention is that it appears that you can use United frequent flier miles to redeem songs. This seems to be a useful tie-in, though I'm not going to try it out.

The biggest negative for using the Sony Connect store is that it is based on an embedded Internet Explorer widget, and using it feels like they took a Web browser and squished it in to fit inside of SonicStage; I would rather use a full Web browser if I end up spending most of my time scrolling. Unlike Apple, which essentially uses a Web browser but customizes it for an improved browsing experience, the Sony Connect browser is poorly integrated. From this screenshot you can see that it even has separate scrollbars from the main application. It's also like a picture-in-picture-in-picture: notice that they are three levels of titles.

I'll end my review now, because at this point it's not worth continuing. I'm not going to buy a song and download it to my Sony ATRAC player and tell how that part goes. This effort feels like a loser out of the box, far too late and too little to compete with what's out there.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on May 4, 2004 1:31 PM.

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