Like many other commentators, I greeted last month's SlotMusic announcement from SanDisk with befuddlement. I don't understand why a consumer would pay $14.99, which is almost the same price as a CD, for a tiny MicroSD card preloaded with digitally compressed audio. Yes, the attached USB dongle gives you compatibility with any computer with a USB connector. But still, a CD gives you higher sound quality, compatibility with billions of devices, and much less chance of misplacement between the couch cushions.
Today's announcement that SanDisk will also release a SlotMusic player for $19.99 changes my opinion a little bit. If you're just getting into digital music--and new teenagers and ex-Luddites are created every day--and want the cheapest way to take large quantities of music with you anywhere, a SlotMusic player could fit the bill. It's tiny--less than 3 inches along its longest side. Earphones and battery are included. I'm getting a unit to test out, so I'll let you know if the sound's any good.
The idea is that you'd buy a player and one of these preloaded albums, which comes on a 1GB card. Even with a full album of songs, artwork, and a couple videos, you'd have plenty of extra space to fill the card with other MP3s or unprotected WMAs. I'm not sure how many people have a bunch of MP3s and no MP3 player, but I suppose they exist--perhaps your older brother (or college-aged son) just left for college with his MP3 player and a new laptop, leaving a bunch of music files stranded on the home PC.
There's still a lot of potential for confusion: you'll have to remember which files you burned to which card before you put it in your SlotMusic player. But SanDisk also sells cards up to 16GB in capacity, and I suspect this is the real long-term play for the company. Once users get fed up with buying preloaded cards, they'll just move everything to a bigger card and never swap it out again. Not a great story for the record labels, but fine for SanDisk.
SanDisk also announced today that more than 30 artists from the four major labels are releasing albums on SlotMusic cards, including old faves like Jimi Hendrix and Kiss and new stars like Coldplay and Nickelback, with more artists to come by the end of the year. There will also be artist-branded SlotMusic players from Abba and Robin Thicke for $34.99. All are on sale at Wal-Mart and Best Buy, so mainstream American consumers are going to see these things.
If the format takes off, perhaps we'll begin to see curated collections. For example, maybe a radio station like Seattle's KEXP could sell a SlotMusic card with the top 90.3 songs of the year, instead of simply listing them on its Web site. Or Billboard could issue monthly cards with a selection of hits from its various charts. Rights clearance would be a chore, but not so much harder than putting together a compilation like the Now That's What I Call Music series. Other possibilities include higher-definition uncompressed audio files--imagine the 96kHz/24-bit masters of your favorite albums--or complete collections from single artists--no more bulky box sets.
Finally, one more sure-to-be-useless plea to SanDisk and marketers everywhere: can we please end the creative use of capital and lowercase letters in product names? The actual terms are "slotMusic" and "microSD," but I never remember to type them that way. Product names are proper nouns. Apple gets a pass because the iPod's been so ubiquitous in the media and advertising for the last five years that if I typed "IPod" or "IPhone" it would draw attention to itself, breaking the first rule of clean writing. But apart from Apple, forget it. Sorry.