CES: Philips’ Rhapsody boombox

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Philips has announced that it is integrating RealNetworks’ Rhapsody subscription music service into its new Streamium boomboxes. This moves subscription music, which had previously been available on computers and portable players but not much in between, into an important new middle ground of accessibility. And it raises the question: What took so long?

The Streamium line, which features boomboxes and stereos that can connect to a home network, had previously offered little from the Internet other than webcasts and a limited ability to download. With Rhapsody, customers will be able to tap into an online jukebox with 4.5 million tracks, albeit for upward of $10 a month.


Matt Rowlen, a Real vice president, said his company was eager to unleash the Rhapsody service from computers and pocket-size portables. The only alternative on the market today is the Sonos networked music system, but that’s expensive: The basic version costs more than $900. ‘Any device that has [Internet] connectivity, we want to enable that with the Rhapsody service,’ he said.

Developing a version of Rhapsody that will work with consumer electronics devices low in processing power was a technical challenge for Real, Rowlen said. But the bigger hurdle, according to Philips executives, was figuring out the right user interface. Rhapsody’s huge collection is easy to search through with a computer keyboard and a 19-inch screen, but you won’t find either on a Streamium compact stereo. ‘The living room is a hard place to get this right,’ said Kevin A. Lewis, chief of strategy and business development for Philips.

You won’t be able to tell whether Philips succeeded for a few months. The first Streamium player with Rhapsody support (the NP1100) is due early in the second quarter, with an expected price below $200. One or two more models may follow later in the year.

The potential win for consumers here is the ability to dip into Rhapsody’s jukebox away from their computers -- anywhere, in fact, they can connect to the Internet via WiFi. As with Haier’s Ibiza line of WiFi-equipped, Rhapsody-enabled MP3 players, this kind of freedom adds a ton of value to Rhapsody, to the benefit of both subscribers and RealNetworks. Subscription music services aren’t for everybody, particularly not those who spend little on music. But their value becomes more apparent as they become available on more kinds of devices.

-- Jon Healey