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SD: the new CD?

September 21, 2008 | 10:45 pm

Jon_healey_logoWith CD sales dropping despite a demonstrable increase in music consumption, you might think that music fans just aren't as interested as they used to be in paying for tunes. Or you could believe in the spirit of hope springing eternal, and that the problem is with the CD itself. If you're in the latter camp, then you should be cheered by the announcement this morning that the four major record companies plan to experiment with a new physical format for albums: microSD cards. See my colleague Michelle Quinn's piece about the deal here.

Now, if you're convinced that the CD is dying because there are a plethora of free sources of music online, you're probably scoffing at the prospects for albums sold on a microchip -- or any other shrink-wrapped container, for that matter. But Daniel Schreiber, a senior vice president at SanDisk (the company behind microSD cards and the prime mover behind the "slotMusic" initiative) has a question for the skeptics: how do you think people are going to load tunes onto their shiny new music phones?

SanDisk, music, CD, formats, MP3, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, Sony BMG, EMI, flash memoryAccording to Schreiber, 750 million new mobile phones will be shipped this year with microSD card slots. It's a safe guess that most of those phones will have the software needed to play MP3s. I'd also speculate, though, that most owners won't find them particularly easy to load with songs -- after all, only one phone works seamlessly with iTunes, the most popular digital jukebox program. That's where the 1 GB slotMusic cards come in: they're plug and play.

Schreiber said that downloadable music outlets such as Apple's and the wireless carriers' music stores have an important role to play, but they're not for everybody. "The simplicity of two things just plugging into each other is hard to replicate," he said. With microSD cards, there's no need to copy tracks onto a computer and recopy them onto the device. It's just like buying a CD. And the music files on the cards will be MP3s, just as unfettered by DRM as the tracks on a compact disc.

Whether the cards are priced just like CDs remains to be announced, as does the launch date and the titles that will be available. (Wal-Mart and Best Buy are among the retailers that will carry the cards, so chances are good that they won't sell for the MSRP.) One advantage that the cards have is that the content doesn't have to be static -- it can be changed dynamically through the Internet or linked to a storehouse of material online.  That makes for some interesting capabilities, such as the possibility of adding personalized content after the purchase or loading bonus tracks that can be unlocked for an extra fee.

Here's something else to think about: a decade ago, disc players were ubiquitous. Cars had them. Boom boxes had them. And battery powered CD players dominated the market for hand-held devices. But with MP3 players and mobile phones taking over the portable musical entertainment function, disc readers have grown increasingly scarce. In their place you'll find hard drives and flash memory. That trend favors the slotMusic initiative. Of course, some manufacturers (read: Apple) haven't supported removable memory, which doesn't help SanDisk and its allies. More important, to judge from what happened to other formats that have popped up in the past two decades, the availability of a ton of content on microSD will be crucial to its success. If the labels treat slotMusic as a curiosity, it's probably doomed. It will be interesting to see how the wireless companies respond, too. If they view the SD cards as a competitor to their own music stores, that'll be yet another hurdle for SanDisk and its allies to overcome.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Photo courtesy of SanDisk's website

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