Sony launches latest attempt at online music

Sony America joined the online music market Tuesday with the launch of Connect.

The store, available only in the U.S. for now and operated by subsidiary Sony Connect, has over 500,000 songs from all major and some independent labels in its library. Download prices start at US$0.99 for individual songs and at US$9.99 for albums, Sony Connect said in a statement Tuesday.

Users can listen for free to 30-second clips of songs. Unlike hybrid online music services, such as RealNetworks Inc.'s Rhapsody, which for a monthly fee lets people buy songs and albums and also listen to its entire catalog without buying the songs, Sony's Connect only sells songs and albums. In this way, Connect employs a model similar to Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Music Downloads online music stores.

In order to buy songs or albums from Connect, a user has to create an account and provide all pertinent contact information. Users can also burn the downloaded songs in up to 10 CDs. The store, which is part of Sony's SonicStage 2.0 jukebox software, can only be accessed from PCs running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems, including Windows 98SE, Windows ME, Windows 2000 Professional and Windows XP. The software isn't compatible with Windows 95, Windows 98 Gold Edition, Windows NT or any version of Windows 2000 other than Professional.

Users can play the songs downloaded from Connect an unlimited number of times on up to three PCs registered with the store, Santa Monica, California-based Sony Connect said. Songs downloaded from Connect to a PC can only be transferred to Sony devices that are compatible with the Sony audio coding system ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding for MiniDisc). Some such devices are the Sony Net MD players, the Sony Network Walkman, the Sony CD Walkman players, the Sony Clie handheld and Sony Vaio computers. In the U.S., only devices manufactured by Sony support this technology, said Mack Araki, a Sony Corp. of America spokesman. The company plans to support devices from other manufacturers. The company also announced Tuesday a new family of devices compatible with the store called Hi-MD Walkman digital music players.

Sony's first foray into online music sales came in late 2001, when Sony Music Entertainment Inc. launched the Pressplay service in conjunction with Vivendi Universal SA. Pressplay was sold in May 2003 to Roxio Inc., which used the service as a foundation for relaunching Napster LLC.

"I give this store very little chance of being successful, given Sony's poor history in this space, the proprietary nature of store's technology and the entrenched competition it will face," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst of The Enderle Group in San Jose, California.

The market for online digital music sales is still very small. It hit US$80 million in the U.S. last year, with projected growth to US$1.6 billion in 2008, when the revenue will be about evenly split between subscription fees and download purchases, according to Jupiter Research.

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