Executives briefly demonstrated the eMarker last week but offered few details.
The Sony-branded device, which is slightly larger than a car alarm remote control, is basically a digital stopwatch that can connect to a PC. When people hear a song on the radio they'd like to know more about, they press the device's lone button.
Once home, they plug the device into their PC and connect to the eMarker Web site. The site determines which songs were bookmarked by matching the radio station playlist with the time the bookmark was created. People can then listen to clips of their music, save the songs in a database of favorites, or purchase the albums from an online retailer.
The device is quite similar to the iTag announced earlier this year by Xenote, a San Mateo, Calif., start-up. Xenote has about 7,000 iTags in the market and is working publicly with KKSF, a San Francisco jazz station, and KRBE, a top-40 station in Houston. Xenote also offers links to buy the music and sound clips, as well as other information about the album.
According to sources, Sony plans to work with multiple music stores, both Internet pure plays and brick-and-mortar outfits, and get a commission on any sales. Sony plans initially to launch in about 10 cities, expanding to include most metropolitan areas, the sources said.
Sony's launch is planned for late July, with a strong marketing push that could include television, radio, print and online advertising for the eMarker, which will be sold online and possibly in stores. The product, which was tested in the United States earlier this year by Sony workers, will debut later in Japan.
While Xenote has been giving away its devices, Sony plans to charge an as-yet-undetermined price that is "less than your average Walkman," according to a source familiar with the company's plans.
There are other differences, as well. For example, Sony's device hooks up to the Universal Serial Bus port, while the current iTag uses a serial connection. Sony has a deal with Broadcast Data Systems, which creates a database of roughly 1,000 radio stations' playlists, while Xenote is working with a similar company.
Both Sony and Xenote say their products are designed to solve the problem of not remembering--or not knowing--the names of the songs you hear that you like.
"It's always been a huge problem," said Mark Kaufmann, a co-founder of Xenote. "Radio is so transitory."
An open question is what people will do with that information once they get it. Sony's device will be marketed to--and appears to have the most interest from--older teenagers. Whether that group is more likely to buy the music or listen to it online using Napster or another service is unclear.
Eventually both Sony and Xenote hope to link to Web sites where users can legally download music.
Because it also works directly with radio stations, Xenote says it has the big advantage of being able to link to advertisers. Kaufmann said about 20 percent of the links Xenote users upload are to advertisements, potentially allowing iTag-equipped stations to charge more for ads.
Assuming either device takes off, its maker may be able to sell valuable data about not only who is listening but what they are listening to most. That would be of interest to the stations as well as record stores and music labels.
Sony's eMarker is the brainchild of Woody Deguchi, a 31-year-old Sony employee who thought up the device about a year-and-a-half ago. Deguchi once worked at an Osaka, Japan, radio station where many of the calls coming in were to get information about songs that had just played. The eMarker is his answer to that longtime problem.
The eMarker is also part of Sony's effort to find ways to take the company's businesses into the Internet age, an effort that it has dubbed eSony. Deguchi's San Francisco-based unit is a prototype of what these new business units might look like: it is small and largely autonomous, with full funding from the parent company.
Kaufmann said Xenote came up with the idea for its iTag about two years ago. Both Xenote and Sony have applied for patents for their devices. The eMarker is believed to cost Sony less than what it will sell for, while Xenote said its manufacturing cost is about $5.
The devices' big payoff for radio stations is more loyal listeners who listen longer, Kaufmann said. He said a third of Xenote's initial users report they are listening more to the radio.
"That's music to the radio stations' ears," Kaufmann quipped.