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Sphere's OmniPlayer Converges Some Handheld Devices

Sphere's OmniPlayer

Start-up company Sphere Multimedia Technologies is targeting online and retail sales of a portable device that stores music in solid-state memory but will eventually be expandable to incorporate organizer, paging and wireless-phone functions.

The device, called the OmniPlayer, is positioned as a "universal portable device" that will eventually make it unnecessary to carry multiple electronic appliances, said Luis Cavada, president of the Hallandale, Fla., company.

Cavada is positioning the device as a solid-state-memory music player "for everyone, not techies," because it doesn't have to be used in conjunction with a PC.

The 5.1-ounce device (including two AAA batteries) features an analog input to record and store music from the analog output of a home audio component or from a PC's analog line output, he explained. The device converts music into Sphere's proprietary compressed digital format for storage on up to four removable MultiMediaCards.

Sphere will target the "techie" market later in the year with a PC accessory that connects to a PC's parallel port to transfer music in digital form to two MMC cards placed in it.

The accessory will come with SDMI-compliant music-management software that will download music from the web and rip CDs for storage in multiple compression formats on a PC's hard drive. The accessory will convert the music files into Sphere's format for storage on the MMC cards. The company intends to make the OmniPlayer itself SDMI-compliant.

The OmniPlayer, which itself features four MMC slots, will deliver close to three hours of music when outfitted with four 32MB cards and when using the format's least compressed mode, which delivers about 2 minutes of music per megabyte. The mode with the most compression stores about four minutes of music per megabyte.

"When it [a music file] is converted to our codec, it will pass on whatever copy-control restrictions came with it," Cavada noted.

The unit will ship in September with two 16MB cards at $199 on the company's web site, omniplayer.com, and through a toll-free number. Prices for optional 8, 16 and 32MB MMC cards have not been determined, but the company is targeting about $2 per megabyte.

Sphere is also talking to brick & mortar retailers to carry the device during the holiday season, but the dealer margin at $199 hasn't been determined, Cavada said. Optional 64MB cards will be available later in the year.

The first planned upgrade will add organizer functions through a 6mm-thick snap-on replacement cover that will incorporate a 2.5-inch active-matrix color TFT touchscreen and the firmware that contains the organizer's operating system and the data entered by users via the touchscreen's virtual keyboard.

The main unit supplies the organizer's battery power, compresses entered PDA data before it's stored in the organizer firmware, and handles the organizer's housekeeping chores, such as turning the backlight on and off, Cavada said.

Because the device lacks a serial or parallel port, the organizer functions won't synchronize with desktop PIM software.

Sphere hopes to ship the option later this year at an undetermined price.

After that, two-way messaging, wireless-phone, and GPS options are in the works. Each new snap-on cover will incorporate the functions of the prior optional cover, he said.

A wireless-phone option is feasible, he said, because of the shrinking size of phones and the availability of thin, gumstick-style prismatic batteries that could be employed if needed to complement the main body's two AAA batteries, which deliver 10 to 15 hours of music playback time.

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