MP3 + DRM = slotRadio


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SanDisk expanded its slotMusic product line today with a model called the Sansa slotRadio. The concept is going to beguile some and infuriate others: SlotRadio relies on microSD cards preloaded with 1,000 songs costing a mere 4 cents each, but the cards use DRM to prevent the songs from being copied or played on demand. It’s like a set of commercial-free radio stations, except it sounds better and works in tunnels. Before you go all EFF on me about the DRM, bear in mind that it isn’t being used to crimp consumer freedoms or lock in customers. It’s being used to create a new type of product, one that costs less than CDs but conveys far fewer rights.

Not that there was an outpouring of demand for this innovation. On the contrary, slotRadio is a storage-chip manufacturer’s attempt to spur demand by finding new ways to bundle content with its media. And now that it’s available -- at SanDisk’s site today, and at Radio Shack in a couple of months -- we’ll see if anyone will be inclined to buy it. . . .


Here are a few data points. The first product is the $100 slotRadio player, which is about the size of an oversized sports watch. The player comes with a card filled with songs from five broad genres: rock, country, R&B/hip hop, contemporary (Top 40) and alternative. It also includes two cross-genre play-lists: an up-tempo one called ‘Workout’ and its laid-back counterpart, ‘Chillout’ (not to be confused with the electronica subgenre of the same name) (and really, a few minutes with the playlist is enough to dispel any confusion). Each playlist contains roughly 200 songs, or 13 hours of music. The player, which also has an FM tuner, has bare-bones controls -- in essence, you can turn the thing on or off, pick a playlist, fast-forward past tracks (but not move backwards to play songs again), and turn the volume up or down. There’s no way to search for songs, create playlists or do any other customization -- you turn it on and listen, that’s pretty much it. Like a radio.

Soon, SanDisk will also offer $40 slotRadio cards preloaded with 1,000 tracks from a single genre, time period or theme. These cards, which can also be played on Sansa’s Fuse MP3 players, will probably lead to more aural surprises than the one shipped with the slotRadio player. But the key to the cards’ success will be SanDisk’s ability to get its software onto a large number of devices that people already have, namely, mobile phones (the DRM used to block copying also renders the card unplayable without special software). I just don’t see a whale of a lot of people spending $99 for a player that’s so hobbled and whose playlists are all but encased in amber.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I’m not the target audience for this device. My tastes run to the unfamiliar, and I’m willing to put a lot of effort into my musical entertainment -- I like to create playlists and load new stuff onto my MP3 players. But there are plenty of people who want to listen to familiar songs that someone else picks -- witness the popularity of stations that play Top 40 music. And SanDisk reports that the (relatively few) albums available on slotMusic cards are selling surprisingly well, so there’s a market out there for at least some version of the format. Being able to load 1,000 tracks into your phone or MP3 player in one fell swoop for $40 might strike those consumers as a pretty good deal, considering how long it would take to find and download that many songs from the Internet.

All the same, this product has a narrow window of opportunity. The day is approaching when wireless broadband networks will blanket the cities, and when MP3 players will connect continuously to the Internet. Instead of having to load songs into your player’s memory, you’ll stream them from the Net. The Slacker G2 player does a pretty good approximation of this experience already, as does Haier’s Rhapsody ibiza, Microsoft’s latest Zune, and Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch. Their capacities are effectively unlimited because they can be loaded with new songs and/or playlists at any WiFi hotspot. These devices are all significantly more expensive and complex than slotRadio’s entry, and some also carry monthly subscription fees. Nevertheless, the more WiFi-enabled devices there are on the market, the harder it will be for SanDisk to sell the slotRadio concept.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.