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Sony and MP3, together at last

What will Sony's arrival mean for the industry?

Before Sony brought out its new NW-HD3, it didn't have a hard-drive-based digital audio player that could play MP3s. This was a shame, because while Apple makes some great MP3 players, it could use some credible competition. Sony has the marketing muscle, the brand recognition and the industrial design know-how to fill that role.

So it's a bit of a pity that even after this announcement, Sony seems determined to screw up.

First of all, here's a quick rundown of how things got to this point. Sony has its own proprietary compressed digital audio format called ATRAC (for Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding), which it claims offers better sound quality at lower bit rates than MP3 files. ATRAC also supports digital rights management, which Sony uses as the backbone of its Connect online music store.

You can imagine Sony execs saying "Well, we've got an audio format that's better than MP3, and we'll build a store where customers can get all the downloads they want. Why do we need anything else?"

So Sony built its first digital audio players with ATRAC support only. To play MP3 tracks, users first have to convert them to ATRAC files with a process called transcoding. That takes time and processing power, and it's about the last thing you want to do if you're trying to fill up your flash player in the morning before you head out to work.

The ATRAC-only approach was ludicrous, like building a PC without a CD-ROM drive or a car that runs on only one brand of petrol. Customers had spent years building collections of their favourite MP3s on their home PCs. Why should they have to convert the files to play them on their new MP3 players?

Actually, that's the problem right there: People call these devices MP3 players. That's how ubiquitous the format is. Who's going to buy a device that doesn't support it?

Sony's Connect store was a dog, too, plagued by poor interface design, an underwhelming selection and a logo that looks way too much like an orange tennis ball.

All that's changed now that Sony's announced a new player with MP3 support built in, right? Well, sort of. The NW-HD3 launches next week in Japan and this winter in Europe.

But that's okay, right? I mean, surely you'll be able to add MP3 support to the older players with a firmware upgrade, won't you? Not exactly. Yes, Sony will offer a firmware upgrade that adds MP3 capability to its older hard-drive-based audio players. But you can't just plug your Network Walkman into your PC and flash the firmware as you would with a digital camera or optical drive. Instead, you need to send your player to a Sony service centre or drop it off at one.

If that's how Sony plans to roll out MP3 support, it certainly doesn't bode well for the company's entry into the market. A year from now, Sony will probably be in the market simply on the strength of brand recognition. (Remember how long the MiniDisc stayed around?)


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