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Handhelds Take The Spotlight

One week after CEDIA Expo — a fine annual showcase of upscale A/V products — the news immediately moved on from large, high-ticket items to handheld products with more modest prices. Such is the breadth of the CE industry.

Microsoft got the ball rolling last week, saying that its new 16GB and 120GB Zunes, and currently available units, will be able to download and stream songs via Wi-Fi directly from the Zune Marketplace music service. And Microsoft said that Zune owners will have a new “Buy from FM” option, which lets users tag and download songs they hear on the unit’s analog FM radio.

Meanwhile the leader in the field, Apple, cut prices on select iPod portables, doubled the storage on the iPod Nano and added new cosmetics and features. While analysts we spoke to applauded the moves, it didn’t help Apple’s stock. And many were still concerned about the health of Apple’s top exec, Steve Jobs, who looked rather thin during the briefing last week.

Also last week, Sirius XM, which had a booth at CEDIA, said it would begin shipping new a la carte radios later this month, including one for $129, and will offer a la carte pricing on its programming.

Sirius XM, which repeatedly cited that that it is not a handheld or mobile entertainment monopoly because MP3 players like those from Apple and Microsoft are among many competitors out there, didn’t get the expected bounce from this seemingly good news. Wall Street analysts were disappointed about the guidance it provided on its near-term financials. Based on what’s been going in the financial markets this year, I’m not surprised.

And Sprint made a major introduction last week with seven cellphones. Some are Windows Mobile 6.1-based touchscreens, one is a Wi-Fi BlackBerry, three have Sprint’s OneClick user interface and all seem to have a ton of features so you can text, email, take still pictures and video, roam the Web, download music … and make phone calls.

The Sprint introductions, like products from other carriers, put them in direct competition with Sirius XM, Zune, iPod, broadcasters and other industries and technologies, which should continue in the future.

Getting back to CEDIA Expo, the event had the usual amount of product introductions, technology twists and turns, and activity. (See our coverage of the show starting on p. 1 and at But the organization admitted that attendance was officially down by around 4,000, to 25,000. This is not surprising given the economy, and CEDIA said the show was “successful despite the economy.” Based on the activity from the companies and executives who did attend the show, I agree.