Sony is ditching its proprietary audio format, ATRAC, in favor of a variety of formats, including Windows Media Audio, MP3, and advanced audio coding (AAC). Sony immediately announced new Walkman models, all of which support WMA, MP3, and AAC formats. Two players, the NWZ-A810 and the NWZ-S610, are the first U.S. units to also play video (MPEG-4 and AVC) and display photographs.
Sony’s proprietary format and closed music-hardware platform was a sore spot with consumers, who had the choice of Apple’s iPod or a large number of WMA-compatible PlaysForSure devices. While the iPod also uses a proprietary DRM (FairPlay), people could still play MP3 and AAC files.
Sony also announced at the International Funkausstellung (IFA), the world’s largest consumer electronics fair in Berlin, that it’s closing its online digital music store, Sony Connect, no earlier than March 2008. Sony’s market share among online music merchants is dwarfed by Rhapsody, eMusic, Urge, and Napster.
“With these new Walkman players, Sony has widened its digital music environment to support Windows Media technology,” Sony said in a statement. “This gives customers greater flexibility in their music software approach.”
Sony Connect, launched in 2004, was dogged by suspect press almost from the start. USA Today called the downloading service a “flop” in May 2004, saying it was a “shockingly un-slick maiden voyage” for Sony.
Sony posted a Connect Music Service Phase Out FAQ to explain why it’s closing the store and what customers can expect. Sony’s SonicStage software, used to interface with Connect, and older Walkman hardware will continue to support ATRAC, but the company says people who purchased DRM-protected content should rip their music to CDs and then re-rip it to MP3, WMA, or AAC if they want to play it on new Walkmans.
Consumers may also use their music in SonicStage libraries and on older ATRAC Walkmans afterl Sony Connect closes. Existing libraries are not at risk, Sony said in the FAQ, but it’s recommended that customers archive their music libraries to CDs — indicating that Sony may not support Connect indefinately.
The one part of Connect that is not affected is the eBook service for the Sony Reader. The restructuring allows Sony to turn the focus of its remaining 80 employees to its PlayStation brand — and possibly release video and music to the PS3 and PlayStation Portable through the PlayStation store.