CES - DataPlay products (finally) near release

A year after its debut, the postage stamp-size but high-capacity DataPlay Inc. drive is finally near availability, in a handful of music players shown at the Consumer Electronics Show here last week.

DataPlay has begun volume production of the micro-optical drives that form the heart of these players, representatives say. Among those on display is the MTV DataPlay Enabled Music Player, announced by Evolution Technologies Inc. this week in conjunction with the music channel.

"We have placed a multimillion dollar order for parts with DataPlay and will be launching the product as soon as the partners are ready," says Jeff Degraci, vice president of sales and marketing at Digisette LLC, another DataPlay partner eager for the technology's release. The first products are slated for launch in April, he says.

Eagerly awaited

The DataPlay drives were greeted with enthusiasm at their debut at last year's CES. There, DataPlay demonstrated a number of prototype devices that use the tiny disks, which store up to 250MB of data on each side and can contain up to 11 hours of compressed digital music. A year later, we're still waiting for products using the DataPlay drive to ship. So what's the holdup?

"We had delays in transferring the micro-optical storage engine to high-volume production in our Far East facility," says DataPlay founder Steve Volk. "This rippled to the manufacturers and resulted in a delay." DataPlay discs slipped from their scheduled release in late 2001 to the anticipated spring 2002 introduction, he adds. "Our facility in China is now in volume production," Volk says.

With players nearing completion, new details are becoming available about how DataPlay discs will store music and data. When connected to your PC, DataPlay devices will use an Installable File System that makes them appear like any other removable storage drive. You'll be able to simply drag and drop files onto the discs.

However, when it comes to digital music files, the situation isn't quite that simple. If you copy a clean MP3 file to a DataPlay disc using Windows Explorer, you won't be able to play that file when the player is detached from your PC. However, if you copy the file through DataPlay's music manager application, it gets converted into an encrypted music file that the player will play.

New partners

The DataPlay boosters keep lining up, both partners and potential customers. Imation has committed to selling the blank discs at between US$10 and $15 each.

DataPlay is also working with record companies to release prerecorded music on DataPlay discs, Volk says. By May, Universal Music Group, EMI Recorded Music, and BMG Entertainment are expected to begin offering albums on DataPlay discs. The discs hold the digital music in encrypted form, and customers receive access after paying a fee to obtain a key to unlock it.

"We are in discussions with the other two majors, and we've also started discussions with several independent labels," Volk says. "We also have the option of putting multiple albums on a DataPlay disc: You buy one album and you can sample other albums." Those samples would be offered for sale at a discount over the standard CD price, he says. Also, activation by key will be available via the Internet. Customers will be able to make a limited number of copies of the prerecorded music, he says.

Sean Captain contributed to this report.

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