Sony challenges Apple with 20GB music player

Sony hopes its upcoming music hardware, combined with its music service, will unseat Apple's market leadership.

Sony Electronics will begin selling two hard-drive music players this fall which, combined with its new music download service, will create an iPod-like parallel universe.

The consumer electronics giant announced two products late Wednesday: the $400 20GB Network Walkman NW-HD1 and the $500 40GB Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1L. Both players will be available in fall for use with the Sony Connect music download service, which was launched in May. The devices and the service will make Sony the latest to compete with Apple Computer's iPod and iTunes products. Sony's belated arrival compares poorly with its historical leadership position in the portable music player business, said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst with research firm IDC.

"The industry has been waiting for them to come out with jukebox devices," Kevorkian said. Apple launched its iTunes music download service and iPod devices in April 2003.

Sony's new players join a growing list of devices that can be used with the Sony Connect music service, which executives feel gives them a larger target audience.

"We have the broadest array of portable audio products...we have a complete line of devices at different prices for different lifestyles, collectively leaving us in a strong position," said Rick Clancy, senior vice president of corporate communications at Sony Electronics.

Even the two new devices target different types of consumers. At the current prices, Sony's new players are high-end devices.

The Vaio Pocket is for the enthusiast who is looking for a media player, Clancy said. The device's 2.2-inch color screen allows consumers to display photos and album covers while playing music. Consumers will also be able to offload photos from a Sony Cybershot digital camera to the device, making it a repository for digital content other than music. The device will connect to a PC or camera via a USB 2.0 connection. The device will come with a lithium-ion battery and a LCD remote control that attaches to headphones. The Vaio Pocket will be available in September.

The Network Walkman comes with 256MB of flash memory along with its 20GB 1.8-inch hard drive. It weighs less than 4 ounces. It also uses a USB 2.0 port to connect to a PC. It comes with a jog dial button for navigating its monochrome LCD screen. It will be available in mid-August.

Both devices use Sony's ATRAC3 music format. Using desktop software included with the devices, MP3, WAV and WMA files can be converted to ATRAC3 and played on the players. The Network Walkman will hold up to 13,000 songs, while the Vaio Pocket will hold 26,000, according to Sony.

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