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Sony plays in iTunes territory

The electronics giant may shake up the online music market, but analysts say that Sony's MiniDisc players haven't been enough of an answer to the iPod.

Sony on Tuesday launched its online music store, throwing its hat into a ring that has been dominated for a year by Apple Computer's iTunes.

As a competitor with significant resources--and a long list of music devices with which it hopes to rival the iPod--Sony's entry into the market could help change the dynamics of digital music sales. But Sony could also complicate the market for consumers, by selling music in yet another copy-protected technological format that is incompatible with any of the other services.

The Sony Connect service is also being closely associated with the release of a new generation of high-capacity Sony MiniDisc music players. The newest version of the device isn't on store shelves yet, but analysts say that, overall, the MiniDisc line has not gained the soaring market appeal of Apple's iPod.

"You have to view (Sony) somewhat different than any of the other players because of its reach and overall brand strength," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "But it is the devices that are driving people to go online to buy music, and Sony is going to need to come up with an answer to Apple's iPod that goes beyond the MiniDisc."

Sony's entry in the market underscores how closely the world of digital music is being tied to consumer electronics, creating a balkanized world of incompatible devices and music formats that has many in the music industry worried about confusing consumers.

Sony, Apple, RealNetworks and a long list of Microsoft-allied companies all are offering similarly priced songs in different formats, and the various music players available each support only a limited number of formats.

Record label executives say they've asked Apple and others to move toward making the various devices and services compatible with one another, but to little avail so far.

On the sales side, Sony could bring marketing muscle similar to Apple's. Many in the business credit Apple for jump-starting the digital music industry last year with its advertising push.

The launch of Sony Connect was held in conjunction with United Airlines, which is letting travelers exchange frequent-flyer miles for digital music. Singer Sheryl Crow--who also endorsed Apple's iTunes--staged an in-air concert for the launch party during a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Like most rivals, Sony is offering downloads for 99 cents and albums largely for $9.99, with access provided through a piece of software that can be downloaded through the site.

As part of the store launch, Sony has been heavily promoting its newest MiniDisc player, the MiniDisc Hi-MD Walkman, which reads small discs that can hold about 45 hours of music each. Earlier Sony devices, including the Net MDWalkman recorders, ATRAC CD Walkman players and Network Walkman players, will also be able to play music from the Connect store.

The company also said that subsidiary Aiwa is close to releasing a small hard-drive based player called the Giga Pavit, which is similar to the iPod Mini.