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Everyone Enters Internet Audio

Sony and Thomson announced expanded plans for Internet audio portables in 2000, while Sharp and Panasonic announced plans to introduce their first products later this year.

In other announcements:

  • Philips announced pricing of the 64MB version of its Rush portable.
  • And Zenith, H.H. Scott and Sanyo are demonstrating their first solid-state portables but haven’t announced availability.

At a press conference, Thomson announced plans sometime later this year to ship an RCA-brand headphone CD player that will play back homemade MP3-encoded recordable CDs and traditional CDs at a suggested $199. In December, an executive said the product probably wouldn’t hit U.S. shores until 2001.

MP3 discs will hold 12 times the music of standard CDs, Thomson said of the product’s key selling point. The product would complement its solid-state-memory Lyra portable.

Meanwhile, Sony announced plans for a third solid-state portable, this one sporting only embedded memory and no slots for removable memory cards.

In related news, Sony consumer products president Fujio Nishida said sister company Sony Music will authorize Internet downloads of its songs in the first quarter, but neither he nor other Sony executives revealed details.

Instead, Sony provided details of its third portable, the $329-suggested-retail Network Walkman, due in March with 64MB of embedded memory. It offers most of the same features as the $399-suggested Memory Stick Walkman but uses a single AAA battery rather than embedded rechargeable lithium-ion battery to extend battery life to five hours from the lithium’s two.

In addition, the Network Walkman features only embedded memory to reduce the cost for users who don’t need removable memory, said Ron Boire, senior VP of personal audio.

As previously announced, another Sony solid-state portable, the Music Clip, is due this month at a suggested $299.

Panasonic announced its intention this year to market at least one solid-state portable that will be small enough (slightly larger than a matchbox) to wear around the neck or on a wristband. Few details have been finalized, executives said, but it will use SD memory cards and operate on one AAA battery. It will most likely be shipped with a software player, code-named Nigel, developed by Panasonic, AT&T, Universal Music, and BMG’s parent.

The player, which is still undergoing trials, incorporates a proprietary codec (said to be superior to MP3) and Intertrust’s digital rights management technology, but support of other codecs and security technologies are under consideration, the company said.

For its part, Sharp showed mockups of six solid-state portables due in Japan in spring at unannounced prices. In the U.S., some or all of the models will ship sometime in the fall, Sharp said.

All use removable Memory Stick media. Three incorporate all circuitry, memory card slot and all controls and displays in the headphone themselves; the other three use a separate headphone and portable player.

As with Sony’s solid-state portables, the Sharp portables play back music files encoded in the Sony-developed ATRAC3 format. The PC player software that ships with the products, however, will transcode MP3 to ATRAC3 before transfer to the devices. It wasn’t certain whether the Sharp products would also transcode other codecs into ATRAC3.

In expanding on its plans, Philips said its $199 32MB Rush will ship at the end of March, with the $299 64MB version due six to eight weeks later, according to audio managing director Guy Demuynck. Both are SDMI-compliant and support playback of MP3, Real Audio, and Audible files, but future products may support more codecs than these, he said.

Should Philips expand its roster of codecs, the current Rushes won’t be field-upgradable to handle the new formats, said Jan Eggebeen, general manager of portable audio product strategy and planning, but future models will be field upgradable, Eggebeen noted.

Demuynck also said Philips is planning at least two shelf systems featuring playback of Internet audio files, and the company is “thinking of” a headphone CD player that would play back MP3-encoded CDs. Although Philips could bring these products to market this year, he declined to specify a ship date or product details, but Philips’ dealer literature said one shelf system with MP3 is due in May.

For its part, Sanyo is demonstrating two SDMI-compliant solid-state portables that support Liquid Audio’s codec and rights-management technology. But pricing and availability haven’t been announced. The company also said the devices would be able to play other codecs such as AAC and MP3, but a prepared company statement didn’t describe the capability in detail.

H.H. Scott unveiled its first portable MP3 player with 32MB internal flash memory.