Sony’s new online music store falls far from Apple’s iTunes

by Stephen Williams

That streak of feisty competitiveness that drives some businesses to great heights in the consumer electronics industry may have been latent in Sony lately. After all, inventing the product categories usually assures the inventors a degree of success. The compact disc was Sony’s deal (in partnership with Philips), and the Japanese giant was in on the creation of DVD too. MiniDisc, a roaring success everywhere but in the United States, belongs to Sony, and its Triniton TVs, at least in the days before giant flat-panel sets roamed the Earth, were sensational. And let us not forget that Sony gave the world the Walkman.

With such terrific brand recognition – not to mention its presence in music and movies, digital photography, computers, cell phones and various PlayStations — even Sony’s failures have a touch of the spectacular about them (still got your Betamax?). All or some of this may explain how Sony’s new online music store, Connect, comes to be such an underachiever. When Sony is proactive, the results are sometimes extraordinary. When it is reactive, things get dicey.

For years Sony was in denial about the direction of the VCR and refused to build VHS machines. Then it did. Last month, Sony announced, finally, that it would compete against Apple’s hyper-successful iPod with a music player called the Vaio Pocket. And, apparently unable to sit back and witness the ascension of Apple’s iTunes, it invents Connect. Isn’t capitalism great?

Late to the party is one thing – iTunes debuted more than a year ago – but clunky is something else. An online music service designed to appeal to the hip and the fashion-conscious – today’s de facto audience for pop – can’t afford clunky.

Let’s start with the tools. After decades and decades of attracting the finest recording artists and marking innovations in audio, Sony needs to be better than the competition. But the software for Connect, Sonic Stage jukebox version 2.0 (for Windows only) lies somewhere between unwieldy and unfathomable. Sony is wedded to a compression format called ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding). It’s integrated into Connect, so you can’t rip tunes in the MP3 format. You can’t transfer directly to other devices — iPod included — and conversion is a real pain. Connect does allow “burning” to Sony’s MiniDisc players, and the groovy next-generation of MD hardware, called HiMD – which could do some serious damage to the iPod – was supposed to sync with the arrival of Connect. HiMD apparently has been delayed by several months.

Ease of use starts with the graphic interface, and Connect’s isn’t exactly Fisher-Price friendly. Images are there sometimes, or not; information like track lists or song titles is lost in Connect’s digital translation; songs and artists you expect to see in a 500,000-plus title catalog aren’t there or have limited exposure. As for arranging playlists, I’ve been able to build computers in less time than it takes to do that.

Songs purchased via Connect (99 cents, as with Apple’s store) can be shared on up to three registered PCs, but they can’t be accessed over a network. Burning to CDs is more complicated still. Connect allows transferring a particular playlist onto 10 CDs, but five of those have to be ATRAC CDs (the other options are audio CDs or MP3 CDs).

Whew.

Meanwhile, the barbarians continue to hammer at Sony’s gates. Apple recently released iTunes 4.5, which adds a number of tweaks, including the ability to create and print jewel-case inserts, and a new “party shuffle” feature, which creates a dynamic playlist, similar to shuffle play, from archived content. Users also can publish their playlists to the store as “iMixes” for others to check out.

Sony is already planning revisions to Connect.

Sony’s first foray into online music sales came in 2001 with the launch of the Pressplay service in conjunction with Vivendi Universal. Pressplay was sold a year ago to Roxio, which used it as a foundation to relaunch Napster.

Now competition for the online music space – which is still only a fractional niche in the recorded-music market – is heating up. Players like Wal-Mart and Dell are in or about to jump into the mix. And with Sony’s historically schizoid approach to offering music online without undermining its traditional music/intellectual property business, the future of Connect seems confusing at best.

The company’s vision of a network of broadband-connected devices, its so-called “ubiquitous value network” concept, needs more juice than a service like Connect can provide right now.