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Rio Planning Janus Support, New Channels

The road to Rio’s future includes large general-merchandise chains for select products and new music portables that can be upgraded to use Microsoft’s planned Janus DRM technology

Also to gain share, the company is upgrading its selection to boost battery life; add fashion-oriented cosmetics; and offer new memory capacities, including 5GB for a HDD model and 512MB for a flash-memory model.

Rio will also expand partnerships with download services to expand its market share, said product marketing VP Dan Torres. Earlier this summer, for example, Rio’s 256MB Chiba began to be bundled with select one-year Napster subscriptions, and Rio products are integrated with MusicMatch PC-based music software, he said.

In another alliance, Rio will support the launch of Microsoft’s Janus DRM technology, a Windows Media Audio (WMA) extension that lets consumers rent rather than own downloaded WMA-encoded songs, Torres said. In a first, the rented songs will be transferable to portable music players if the players incorporate the Janus DRM technology, Torres said. “Consumers will have access to an entire catalog of music if they pay a subscription, and they can move the music in and out [of a portable player],” he explained. To be Janus-compatible, portables would likely include a clock, and they probably would have to be docked with a PC occasionally to confirm the status of a subscription, he noted. “The labels have been very receptive,” he added.

Microsoft has targeted late this year for a commercial Janus launch, and all of Rio’s new products, due in August, will be Janus-upgradable through a software download, he said. The company will also make a running change to the new products as they come out of the factory. Rio hopes its current HDD models, and possibly some current flash-memory models, could be upgraded by consumers, but the company isn’t sure yet.

Janus-protected WMA downloads, Torres said, will give consumers access to every song in the U.S. catalog of protected music, which currently numbers more than 700,000 songs, Torres said. It will also give people the opportunity to “try before they buy” and encourage legal downloading, he said.

Like their predecessors, the new Rio devices play back MP3 and protected-WMA files, but the new models are smaller, boost battery life by around 25 percent over current models, and add USB 2.0 ports. The products include Rio’s first 5GB HDD, the Carbon, expected to retail for an everyday $249. It features small 0.8-inch Seagate HDD and an embedded lithium battery conservatively rated to deliver 20 hours of use. The battery, however, can operate up to 24 hours, Torres said. Rio will offer a battery-replacement plan at launch.

In an enhancement to simplify use, the Carbon dispenses with Rio’s traditional pencil-top-eraser-style control stick for a directional pad, and it features a rubberized feel for a solid grip. It’s the company’s first HDD model with voice recorder.

Three new flash-memory models comprise the sports-style Forge series of 128MB, 256MB and 512MB players, each in a different color to meet consumer demands for fashionable products, Torres said. Like the existing Cali line of sports models, they feature MP3 and protected-WMA playback, FM tuner and FM recording, and SD/MMC memory-card slot to supplement embedded memory. The new models add rubberized feel, easier-to-see backlit display to replace an electroluminescent display, 5 percent to 10 percent smaller size, and more than 20 hours of operation on a single AAA battery, up from 16 hours.

Everyday prices will be $139 and $169 for the 128MB and 256MB models, respectively, and either $199 or $229 for the 512MB model.

Once these and the other new models ship in August, the current Cali and Nitrous models will be redirected to large general merchandise chains, said Torres. The new models will be directed toward Rio’s CE partners, Rio’s online store and other online retailers. Rio has a definitive deal with Wal-Mart, he noted.