Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 24/09/2004Sony has finally noticed that nobody likes their digital music model. Until now, just about all of Sony's audio digital players -- minidisk, flash and hard disk -- have only worked with its own ATRAC compression format.

Friday 24/09/2004
Sony has finally noticed that nobody likes their digital music model. Until now, just about all of Sony's audio digital players -- minidisk, flash and hard disk -- have only worked with its own ATRAC compression format. It's a very good, mature and useful compression format, but it's got no chance of becoming an industry standard. Yet Sony insists that you convert all your music from MP3 or whatever to ATRAC, and helpfully bundles a truly horrible DRM-laden file manager to help you waste tons of time and disk space. It's great fun: you get to check your music in and out while it carefully makes sure you don't do anything you might enjoy. Or you can buy an iPod and just listen to your music.

Now, Sony says it will start to introduce MP3. Hurrah. It'll only be on a few devices at first, and nobody's saying when, but I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies. It's sad that a company with such a track record for innovation and a great deal of persistence, one moreover that created portable music as we know it and was one of the parents of digital consumer media, has such a bad case of Not Invented Here. It has almost boundless loyalty from the most prized segment of consumerism, the rich technophiles, and a proven ability, when it cares, to make parts of the technology world its own.

But it's a cut-throat world these days, and you can't assume you can mold a market to your whim just because you've got a good brand. Apple is the king of portable digital music, but nobody would have bothered with the iPod if it couldn't play MP3s. But it's won: to go against that, you need to move quickly, be extremely sensitive to what the people want and not faff about telling them what to do.

So unless Sony's got something really rather special up its sleeve, it's doomed to be a bit player (sorry) selling virtually nothing and mattering somewhat less. As a Sony devotee myself and owner of many a walkman, Minidisc recorder, shortwave radio and camcorder from the company, it gives me no pleasure to say the company's on a hiding to nothing.

Must try harder, faster and better.

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