Sony Tries to Connect

While Apple's iTunes and RealNetworks Rhapsody are battling it out in the music download ring (see related story), and Microsoft is rumored to be eyeing a corner, Sony has now decided to join the fray with a new music service announced last week in Europe.

At one time, Sony was the king of the portable audio player market with its ubiquitous and wide-ranging line of cassette-, FM-, and CD-based walkmans. But more recently, Apple's iPod and MP3 players from Creative and others have grabbed the headlines in an ever-changing portable market to which Sony has been slow to adapt.

Until now.

Sony Europe announced last week that it will launch an electronic music download service starting in June in the UK, France, and Germany. The company says that the new service has been named "Connect" and will offer "a large catalogue of more than 300,000 songs, including albums and singles from both major and independent record labels."

There may be more audio format wars ahead, however. Sony says that audio tracks on the new service will be available in the ATRAC3 format, originally implemented in the company's own MiniDisc and portable digital players. As a result, Connect songs will not be compatible with Apple iPods, downloading exclusively to "a wide range of Sony portable devices," including the Hi-MD Walkman, Net MD Walkman, Network Walkman, and ATRAC CD Walkman. Sony claims that there are now more than two million portable Sony devices in Europe that will be compatible with the new service.

According to Sony, the Connect service will work with its SonicStage 2.0 music management software employing OpenMG use-restriction technology. Connect will also support the latest version of Sony's enhanced ATRAC codec, ATRAC3plus which allows four compression bit rates from 48 to 256kbps.

Sonic Studio, a digital audio workstation company that is developing an encoder for ATRAC3plus, explains, "this latest version analyzes longer periods of audio signals to obtain more detail on input signals and also introduces a newly developed algorithm that achieves optimal bit allocation for a wide range of audio signals. The result is higher quality sound at higher levels of compression."

Connect's service will begin with songs priced at €.99 per track, or £0.79 in the UK. Sony's Robert Ashcroft adds, "Connect is an integral part of Sony's global strategy to empower consumers to enjoy music in more ways than ever before . . . With music being at the heart of this new consumer experience, we will offer a unique catalogue proposition for each country, which includes not only international but also a wealth of local artists."