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SanDisk ranks a distant number two to Apple in digital music player sales, accounting for less than 10% of the market compared to more than 70% for Apple's iPods. But its new Sansa Connect player provides a glimpse of what a post-iPod world might look like, with players tapping into online jukeboxes and friends' collections instead of relying on the tracks stored inside them.
There's nothing particularly special about the $249 Connect's size, controls or storage capacity. What sets it apart is its ability to connect wirelessly to the Internet through its WiFi circuitry. When combined with Yahoo's subscription music service and instant messaging software, the player acts as a gateway to a virtually unlimited amount of music, as well as a tool to share songs with far-flung friends or nearby strangers.
Think for a minute about the implications of that one feature, WiFi. Conventional MP3 players (and, for you Apple fanatics out there, "conventional" includes iPods) were built to be musical vessels that traveled in isolation when not docked at port. Away from your computer, you could listen only to what you had chosen to store on the player. (OK, some players had a built-in FM radio, so that was an option, too). But the self-contained nature of the product drove manufacturers to expand on-board storage relentlessly, until they reached a point where even the largest music collection could be lugged around in its entirety. It also spurred the development of downloadable music storesafter all, once you've started putting songs on your computer and your iPod, what's the point in buying music on CD? And unfortunately for all concerned, those stores songs used several different, mutually incompatible kinds of electronic locks.
WiFi capability changes the game considerably. Instead of needing to store a vast library of songs on the player, users can tap into the Net's vast musical resources. The shortcut taken by SanDisk's new device is to partner with Yahoo, enabling people to fetch any quantity of songs from Yahoo's large library for a flat monthly fee of about $12. The wireless connection also makes it possible for the player to introduce users to new music, or surprise them with someone else's programming choices. For instance, it offers Yahoo's personalized Internet radio stations instead of FM broadcasts. If they hear a song they particularly like, users can tell the player to download a mix of music like it. They also can rate the songs as they play, creating a profile of their tastes that's used to compile lists of recommended downloads. And they can swap links to songs with their friends through the player's truncated instant-messaging program.
Naturally, these capabilities are available only when the device is tapped into the Net. At this point, the Sansa Connect works only with free WiFi services and a couple of commercial ones. But WiFi hotspots are proliferating around the country, particularly with cities racing to roll out wireless networks.
Remember, SanDisk's approach is just one of many possibilities created by adding WiFi to an MP3 player. Other manufacturers might include a full-fledged Internet browser and a keyboard, enabling users to feast on the thousands of songs playing on MySpace, YouTube and artist websites. Slacker.com plans a WiFi player that can tune in its impressive array of personalized online radio stations. Other possibilities include devices that could stream music from the owner's home computer or play DJ for a far flung group of friends. In other words, wireless networking capability brings in social networking capability.
Microsoft recognized this, too. When it decided to challenge the iPod last year, it offered a WiFi enabled MP3 player linked to a subscription music service. "Welcome to the Social," it declared, throwing grammar to the wind. But the company badly misread the opportunity. Instead of a slender, limited-capacity player that could stream and download songs wirelessly, the first (and, so far, only) Zune was a bulky, high-capacity beast that used WiFi only to exchange songs with other Zune users in the same room. That was bad enough, given how the typical room housed one or no Zune users, but Microsoft made matters worse by wrapping the songs in electronic locks that prevented them from being played more than three times. The Sansa Connect can find and communicate with other nearby Connects, too. But instead of swapping locked songs, it swaps links to tracks that Yahoo subscribers can download and play for as long as they remain subscribers.
Granted, subscription music services aren't for everyone. They're a much better value for people with large musical appetites than those who get by on a couple new CDs per year. But devices like the Sansa Connect help demonstrate how appealing it could be to buy access to an online jukebox, rather than amassing gigabytes of downloads. There's a lot to like about an iPod, but it's confined within the boundaries of your collection and your imagination. Throw in a WiFi connection and those limits disappear.