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Sony Licenses Memory Stick As Category Grows

Sony plans January shipments of the industry’s first portable audio player to use the company’s solid-state Memory Stick storage medium, but other brands of Memory Stick-based portable audio products will follow now that five major consumer electronics companies have agreed to license the technology.

Sony said Aiwa, Kenwood, Pioneer, Sanyo and Sharp will focus on Memory Stick-compliant audio products, but the licenses will also apply to video and data products. Sony licensed Fujitsu to manufacture Memory Sticks.

The Memory Stick licensing agreements follow last month’s announcement that Toshiba, Matsushita and SanDisk will cooperate to develop a solid-state memory format called SD. Other solid-state media – SmartMedia, MultiMediaCard and CompactFlash – are used in portable audio players and other devices.

In its Memory Stick licenses, Sony includes its copyright-protection technology. The technology prevents music files from being moved from a Memory Stick to any device but the hard drive from which it originated.

Sony’s SDMI-compliant Memory Stick Walkman, due in the U.S. in January at a suggested $399, ships with 64MB Memory Stick, and music-recording and -management PC software. A 32Mb card is optional.

The software downloads and encodes MP3 files, but unlike other software, it transcodes MP3 music files into Sony’s proprietary ATRAC3 format before transferring them to a Memory Stick portable.

Transcoding, Sony’s Armstrong explained, makes the portable compatible with additional compression formats if Sony adds support for other formats in future versions of its PC software. ATRAC3’s other advantages include near-CD-quality sound at a 12:1 compression ratio compared to MP3’s typical 10:1 ratio, allowing for 80 minutes of near-CD-quality music on a 64MB card, versus 60 minutes for MP3 at a 10:1 rate.

The 1.44 x 3.75 x 0.75-inch device connects to a PC via USB cable and requires Windows 98 and Pentium PC with 64MB RAM.

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For its part, Audiovox unveiled a trio of MP DJ-series solid-state portables that play back the MP3 format. The first ships in October; the other two are due in December. They come with embedded memory but accept optional MultiMediaCards.

Like most portables available this year, Audiovox’s models are not SDMI-compliant, given that by mid-October, music and hardware companies had not nailed down final licensing terms for the use of Aris’ watermark technology in SDMI devices and in DVD-Audio players.

SDMI intends to use the watermark technology for the Phase I screening function that will detect and block copying of watermarked music and also prompt consumers to upgrade to Phase 2 software. Phase 2 software will copy and play back watermarked songs. The watermark will also be used to carry copy-control rules that must yet be defined under Phase 2 specs, which will be unveiled sometime after March 2000.

Audiovox’s first solid-state portable, the MP-1000, comes with 32MB embedded memory at a suggested $199. It accepts optional 16 or 32MB cards and is Windows 95/98 compatible. The step-up MP-2000, at $239, comes with 64MB embedded memory and Windows 95 compatibility. Both models use parallel-port connections, but the 64MB top-end $279 MP-3000 features a faster USB connection and Windows 95/98 and Mac compatibility. It also features digital voice recorder and FM tuner. All can play back MP3 files at 64, 128 or 256Kbps data rates.

The company plans next-year deliveries of car audio head units that will accept the cards, said senior VP Pat Lavelle.

Creative’s Nomad II, its second portable, is due in the first quarter at less than a suggested $400. “If it [the SDMI spec] is ready, we’ll put it in,” a spokeswoman said.

Unlike the current $249 Nomad, which supports only MP3, the next-generation product adds Windows Media Audio support. It also adds programmable firmware that will enable it to decode additional formats if Creative decides to offer a software upgrade. Both models come with FM tuner.