The shift from reliance on its proprietary format will begin with flash memory-based players, the electronics giant said, but plans are still being finalized on how and when products will add MP3 support. CNET News.com affiliate ZDNet France first reported of the change in Sony's strategy for the European market. U.S. representatives said the company is making similar plans here.
"We're discussing plans to bring flash players to the United States that support MP3 files, but we have nothing to announce at this time," said Gretchen Griswold, a representative of Sony Electronics.
Sony is revisiting its MP3 strategy at a time when competition in the digital music market is heating up and threatening to leave the company behind. The surprise move could portend a major strategy reversal for the consumer electronics giant, with important ramifications for the fledgling online music market.
Although MP3 is far and away the most commonly used digital music file format, Sony devices currently play only files encoded with its own proprietary Atrac music file format. Its devices generally handle MP3 and other formats by transcoding files into Atrac--an awkward process that can be time-consuming, particularly on devices such as flash players with relatively little storage.
That's put the Japanese consumer electronics giant at a competitive disadvantage with rivals such as Apple, whose market-leading iPod portable music player supports MP3 alongside its proprietary FairPlay digital rights management software.
Analysts said the move made sense, given MP3's status as a de facto industry standard.
"It's about time they did this. They've been inconsistent in their strategy since their Aiwa products, and some of their CD players support MP3," said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst at research firm IDC. "This should help them to be more competitive in the digital audio player market."
Kevorkian noted that Sony does not rank among the top five companies in market share for digital audio players. She also wondered if support for Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) format, which is gaining industry support, can be far behind.
The change could help Sony to significantly raise its position in the portable audio device market where, after becoming the pioneer with its Walkman tape players, it has been overtaken by the Apple and its iPod devices.
For the time being, Sony customers will have to be satisfied with MP3 support in flash-based players, which could come as early as this year. Sony not only plans to release new devices; it is working to make available software that will let owners of current models upgrade their devices to add native MP3 support, European sources said.
The company is also considering expanding MP3 support to hard disk devices, sources told ZDNet France, but no decision has yet been made on that front.
Sony has long backed proprietary technology over standards, with sometimes unhappy results. Famously, Sony's Betamax video recording format lost out in the market to VHS in the 1980s. Sony's proprietary Memory Stick flash memory technology has struggled to gain support from device makers, keeping it boxed in a niche. And Atrac--as with other proprietary digital music formats, including WMA--has failed to make significant headway against MP3, the de facto industry standard.
In another MP3 reversal, Microsoft this month introduced media software that allows consumers to rip MP3 files from its free Windows Media Player 10 product. In past products, Redmond has not supported free MP3 ripping, citing prohibitive licensing fees.
Support for MP3 from both Microsoft and Sony suggests that the format is still a must-have for digital music products in the marketplace, despite efforts to push alternatives.
Still, the Sony move is unlikely to bring MP3 files to the recently launched Sony Connect online music download store, which sells songs encoded in Atrac.
"We want to push Atrac on our music download services and remain convinced that it is the best format on the market," the ZDNet France source said. "But it is clear that the industry benchmark is Apple's iPod, which is compatible with MP3."
This person added that Sony had found that users of its flash memory music players are not happy with the company's current system, which forces them to convert MP3 and other file formats into Atrac for use on their Sony devices.
"We observed that on the Walkmans with low-storage-capacity flash memory, users want to be able to change regularly and easily the files which are stored there," the source said. "It was thus necessary to avoid the handling of conversion into Atrac."
Christophe Guillemin and Pierre Labousset of ZDNet France reported from Paris. CNET News.com's Richard Shim reported from San Francisco.