Apple stole a march on Sony in the portable music market when the iPod appeared as the hottest MP3 player available. With consumers now demanding more mobile entertainment, video music players could spell the end for MP3 players – and Sony looks like it means business with the launch of its new Walkman.
During the era when portable music came in a much more tangible form of cassettes and CDs, Sony practically carried the market with its Walkman concept. However, since the dawn of the iPod, Sony has since found itself no longer the leader of the portable audio player market. The latest offerings from Sony look as though they might be able to force iPod to wobble a little a bit on their perch as they seek to take back what had for so long been theirs – domination of the portable music market.
The NW-A 800 range extends the portable music player line up that Sony currently has. The design is still recognisable from the previous NW-A 1000 range, but it is now a lot slimmer, measuring only 1cm thick. Where its predecessor failed with Sony’s Connect Player music management software, the NW-A 800 models are supplied with SonicStage in the bid to rival Apple’s iTunes. By killing off Connect Player and resurrecting SonicStage – originally designed to be used with the ill fated NetMD players – Sony is effectively demonstrating how it intends to learn from its mistakes. The organisation is still persevering with the ATRAC audio format, maintaining Sony’s determination to assert its way on the world. The players themselves also support the more generic MP3, AAC and WMA formats, making it accessible to more users. Although the audio transfers are done with Sony’s own software, video transfers are made with a simple drag and drop, and the players support MPEG4 and AVC video formats. Another subtle difference exists between the old and new Walkman MP3 players, as the NW-A 800 comes with flash memory instead of a hard disk. As is the standard with portable video players, it will be possible to upload JPEG images to view too.
On paper, the Sony Walkman MP3 player appears to be able to compete with the Apple iPod; it looks good, it can play continuously for 30 hours (8 hours for video), it uses software that works as well as conventional methods and it is compatible with plenty of other popular file formats. Unfortunately, Sony may discover that this Walkman might not be able to compete with the iPod Video on price. Apple’s 30GB iPod Video can be found on the Internet at prices as low as £150, where as the NW-A808 8GB Walkman retails at best at £179.99. Although people with smaller music collections may well have more money spare, the compactness and guaranteed uninterrupted playback of the Walkman cannot possibly win over such a large saving per GB. The iPod’s inferior battery life may also play into the hands of Sony, as well as the extra file format compatibilities, but it is hard to imagine that there will be many people who are willing to pay over the odds for portable MP4 video players at this early stage of the market lifecycle. Clearly, Sony is betting a lot on the early adopters.
In terms of accessories, Apple has captured the imaginations of many other manufacturers, and there exist plenty of add-ons and spin-offs to keep the savviest happy. These range from portable speakers and skins to audio pets and body straps, and are all designed with the same quirky looking panache that is synonymous with the iPod. Sony have announced that there will also be plenty of accessories available for the new MP3 player, but it’s likely that there will not be the same adulation and take up from third party manufacturers that is afforded to Apple. With Sony’s design also aiming at a more sophisticated ‘cool’ look, it might also be harder for designers to create anything that can really compliment the player. Sony’s previous insistence on imposing its own formats and standards hasn’t always endeared itself to the general public, either, so this count against the take up for third party produced gizmos. But by incorporating the standard drag and drop method for playing MP4 and video files, this may take Sony into more popular light. Too help boost their presence, they have also launched a MySpace page to encourage a more approachable persona.
Cracking the MP3 player market is already difficult enough, with other brands like Creative and Samsung holding positions below Apple. Sony’s history in the portable player market has carried it well into the digital age, but now they find themselves playing catch up against considerably larger odds. Advocates of Sony’s innovation and build quality will be more than prepared to pay for this new MP3 player and that may be enough to ruffle Apple’s feathers. As credible an achievement as this would be, Sony are likely to be unsatisfied with this, and they will hope that the NW-A 800 range is a step to regaining the market leading position.