DataPlay's Tiny Discs: The Next Big Thing?

Is the world ready for another portable music format? DataPlay Incorporated thinks so. On March 12, the Boulder, CO–based company announced an agreement with Bertelsmann Music Group to release new titles later this year on miniature pre-recorded discs, which are about the size of a quarter.

DataPlay has also signed content deals with EMI and Universal Music. Record labels are said to be eager to test the waters with DataPlay because the format does not allow for easy copying. The arrangements with the labels will let consumers buy music ready to go, as well as let them download songs from the labels' websites, according to a company press release.

Content on the discs will include audio, text, graphics, short video clips, and links to related sites on the Internet. Toshiba, Samsung, and other electronics manufacturers have signed on as partners to develop portable music players and recorders, personal digital assistants, digital cameras, and other devices using the tiny discs, which can hold 250MB of data on a single side and 500MB on a dual-sided disc.

Ordinary CDs can contain about 750MB of data, the equivalent of about 74 minutes of music. DataPlay claims its two-sided discs will be able to contain "five CDs worth of music" at MP3 levels of quality. The discs attain a higher data rate through a combination of digital compression techniques and audio bandwidth limitation—filtering out the frequency extremes. (As with MP3, some publicity about the new format has hyped "CD quality," in the mistaken assumption that all digital audio formats are equal.)

DataPlay will therefore probably not have tremendous appeal for audiophiles, who are going in the other direction with higher-resolution formats like SACD. However, it could be a huge hit with the general public when miniature players not much bigger than wristwatches become available. Miniaturization and portability have been big factors in the success of previous formats, like the cassette tape, CD, MiniDisc, and MP3.

The first players will be priced in the $200–$300 range, with pre-recorded discs priced the same as CDs. Blank recordable DataPlay discs will cost around $12.50, according to company spokesmen. Such prices may not bode well for the success of DataPlay. A quick stroll through any mass-market electronics store reveals dozens of portable CD players priced from $29 to $129. CD burners for personal computers are now widely available at less than $200 retail, and blank CD-Rs can be purchased in bulk for less than 40 cents each. The CD has enormous market momentum: According to the Consumer Electronics Association, more than 56 million CD players were sold last year.

Additionally, pushing DataPlay as a pre-recorded format may be a monstrous uphill battle, as it was for the MiniDisc, which won its slice of market share because of its recordability. DataPlay marketeers might have an easier time of it by emphasizing personal choice and freedom of movement rather than Internet accessibility and copyright security for entertainment conglomerates, but Pat Quigley, DataPlay's chief marketing officer, waxed enthusiastic about his company's alliances with big music. "We look forward to delivering our digital media to the public later this year, and our relationship with BMG is a big step towards making that a reality," he said.

DataPlay expects to launch discs and players in the fourth quarter of this year, to take advantage of the holiday buying season. The company won awards for "Best Mobile Device" and "Best Overall Lifestyle Product" at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show, as well as a CES "Innovations" award for blank media.