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More details about slotMusic

October 15, 2008 |  7:48 am

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When SanDisk announced an initiative last month to sell music on microSD cards, the reaction in the blogosphere was, um, less than enthusiastic. Om Malik, for example, declared that "SanDisk SlotMusic Cards Are Destined To Fail." Chimed in Ars Technica, "Labels launch slotMusic format, miss point of digital music." So much for that idea, right?

Somehow, SanDisk found the will to carry on. Today, the company announced that the first releases from about three dozen artists are shipping. Thirty specific examples are listed here. It's a mix of new (Weezer's latest self-titled effort) and old (Abba's "Gold"), which will carry an MSRP of just under $15. That's about the same price as a CD, but the 1Gb cards have about 50% more capacity than CDs, and buyers can use the extra space as they please. In fact, they can copy the tracks (all MP3s) onto a computer and use the whole thing for their own selections. More intriguing is the new Sansa slotMusic Player from SanDisk, which sells for the insane price of $20. It's ultra-simple -- like an iPod Shuffle, it has no screen to display song titles, and the controls are rudimentary -- but the sound is surprisingly good.

MP3, SanDisk, slotMusic, iTunes, iPods, music formats MP3, SanDisk, slotMusic, iTunes, iPods, music formats Contrary to Ars' assertion, the slotMusic venture doesn't miss the point of what's happening to the market. Instead, SanDisk and the labels are making a reasonable bet that lots of people aren't ready yet to join the revolution. They're hoping that some non-trivial percentage of the population still clings to the immediacy and plug-n-play ease of physical music formats. The slotMusic cards are aimed at people who have no interest in storing and organizing their music collections on their computers, or who don't want to spend the time creating playlists and transferring tracks from their PCs.

Although strategy has its merits, the hurdles facing slotMusic are huge. Foremost among them: there's no compatibility with iPods or iTunes, the most popular digital music devices and software on the planet. The form factor is odd, too -- the cards are smaller than a flake of Raisin Bran, albeit a bit more sturdy. If you've got butterfingers, they're not for you. And Apple is spending millions of dollars promoting the heck out of mode of consumption (downloading) that makes slotMusic's approach seem anachronistic.

On the plus side, I think SanDisk found the right price for the player. It's low enough to be an impulse buy -- especially when sold in a bundle with a new release, which SanDisk plans to offer for about $35 (see the Robin Thicke version above, left. Beyond that, many of the cell phones on the market can play the slotMusic cards, so millions of people are prepped for the format already. The biggest problem for the company, though, is the paucity of music available on microSD. There's a chicken-and-egg problem here that kills many new formats: consumers don't want to adapt their routines to a new format unless there's a goodly supply of stuff to play on it, but content companies won't devote much energy (or many titles) to a format until there's a sizeable demand for it. I can't say how much music is enough to give slotMuisc a chance to succeed, I just know it's a lot more than 30 titles.

Photos courtesy of SanDisk

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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