Sony Throws in the Towel on Connect Music Store

Sony Corp.'s three-year effort to beat Apple Inc.'s iTunes Music Store is over.

The company, which is one of the largest movie, music and consumer electronics companies in the world, said Thursday that it will be closing down its Connect Music Store in Europe and the U.S.

In its place, Sony is adding Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media technology to its music players and allowing consumers to download copy-protected content from numerous Windows Media-compatible music stores on the Internet, including those from Napster, Audible.com and WalMart.

Sony will also distribute Windows Media Player 11 software with the devices.

The news, which was announced at the IFA trade show in Berlin and via a statement in the U.S., represents a big change in the direction of Sony's portable audio business.

Sony created the portable audio sector in 1979 when it debuted the TPS-L2 Walkman, a cassette tape-based audio player that cost the equivalent of a week's wages for an office worker. For years, the company led the market but that all changed when Apple introduced its iPod in 2001.

Sony had actually beaten Apple to market with a digital music player but the product wasn't popular. It took Apple's combination of a player, software and music store to score a hit with consumers and kick-start the digital portable audio market that we know today. Ever since then Sony has been trying to regain its lead in the market but has stumbled along the way.

Its first players weren't compatible with the fast-growing MP3 format and would only play Sony's proprietary ATRAC format -- something that didn't find favor with consumers. MP3 was eventually added in late 2004 but the players have remained locked to Sony's online music store for music purchases -- until this week's adoption of Windows Media.

On the hardware front Sony has also had trouble keeping up with Apple. A video version of the iPod was launched in late 2005, but the same features weren't added to a Walkman player until April this year when devices went on sale in Europe. Walkman players with video still aren't available in the U.S. but will go on sale from September, Sony said Thursday.

The two players to be launched in the U.S. include one that hasn't been seen before.

The new NWZ-S610 player is a smaller and lower-spec version of the NWZ-A810 Walkman that hit Europe in April. Both have QVGA resolution (240 pixels by 320 pixels) resolution screen but the S610 is a little smaller at 1.8-inches versus a 2-inch screen on the A810.

MPEG4 and H.264 video is supported as are the Windows Media, AAC and MP3 audio formats and JPEG images. Both players will come in 2G-byte, 4G-byte and 8G-byte capacity models and prices will range from US$120 to $210 for the S610 series and $140 to $230 for the A810 series.

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