Music migration

SanDisk’s new plan to sell music albums on a microSD card could turn out to be a winner – but it could also go the way of the Mini-Disc and UMD

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By  Derek Francis Published  September 23, 2008

It’s telling of today’s world that when a new technology format arrives on shelves, there are just as many skeptics as there are supporters (if not more). Exactly how many false dawns have there been?

The first true format war that I participated in when I was younger was that of Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS formats. Both were vying to become the de facto industry standard in the 80s, yet consumers didn’t know who to side with. On one Father’s Day when I was just a child, my father, having not received any presents from his two sons, decided to take matters into his own hand. The way he burst through the front door with two massive boxes in his arms is a moment that I will never forget – after all, when you’re young, big boxes means lots of goodness. Once they were ravenously opened, his strategy in this ensuing battle became apparent: support both of them. And with it, my early childhood years were spent enjoying both the quality of the Betamax cassettes and the abundance of content on the VHS format, which was growing exponentially.

More recently, the Blu-ray/HD-DVD war between Toshiba and Sony smacks of similarities. The difference to me is that Sony prevailed this time around with Blu-ray, and I didn’t – and still haven’t – got involved with this High-Definition battle as a consumer. Thankfully, when I do fork out for a Full-HD LCD set, I will be buying a PlayStation 3, and I will be watching Blu-ray DVDs in their full-glory.

The thing is, there is an inevitability about these scenarios. When Betamax, VHS, DVD, Blu-ray or HD-DVD arrived – I knew that we as consumers would make the step up to improved visual quality. When it comes to the music industry, things don’t seem to be as straightforward. In my formative years, the only real format to become the main format of choice for music was the CD – and what a great invention that still is. It had all the ingredients for success: improved digital audio quality, longevity, and most importantly, support from the music labels and retailers. If you consider why subsequent formats didn’t succeed at that level (like the Mini-Disc or UMD), they arguably didn’t have the support of the labels or the strength in distribution.

So there is some natural skepticism surrounding SanDisk’s announcement it will sell music albums on its proprietary microSD format. The world’s biggest supplier of flash memory-based data storage cards is betting that, in an age of digital downloads, consumers still want to physically own their music. To some extent this may be true, but we’re increasingly seeing music labels lick their wounds over the rise of online piracy and digital downloads. When you have bands like Radiohead bypassing distribution and making their new album directly available to consumers as a download, we know change is in the air.

Ironically this change has also turned out to play in SanDisk’s favour. Perhaps it’s their desire to keep physical music distribution alive and kicking that all of the so-called Big Four music labels (EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music, Warner Music) have leant their support to slotMusic. This will be vital to the format if it is to penetrate the mass market. It also has the support of major retailers in the U.S., including Best Buy and Wal-Mart.

Another massive factor in its favour is that microSD as a format already exists in many of the devices we use on a daily basis. There are 3 billion mobile phones around the world – and it’s a fair bet that a number of them have a microSD card slot, for storing photos, songs and files. According to SanDisk, over 750 million music-capable phones with card slots are being sold each year. Many MP3 players are also starting to incorporate microSD slots, most notably SanDisk’s popular Sansa brand. Notebook computers increasingly have microSD card readers. All of these factors help to make microSD a powerful digital storage standard. The inclusion of retail music on microSD is likely to add value – but if it becomes the music industry’s next Compact Disc is another question entirely.

There are so many problems that remain. slotMusic will make use of the popular MP3, format to woo a young, tech-savvy audience, but typically it’s this demographic that’s already comfortable with digital distribution and may not be persuaded to move back into stores to buy their music, even if it’s DRM-free. Analysts are also keen to point out that physical media buyers aren’t the big spenders in the market.

At the beginning anyway, a soft launch with just 10-20 albums on sale will help gauge interest. But much more content will need to be made available if slotMusic has a real chance of succeeding. There are also questions about how much content slotMusic albums will hold. With 1-, 2- and 4-Gbyte microSD cards available, will we begin to see entire band discographies available on one card? To my mind, pricing and content are crucial considerations in the short term as well.

Could the fact that its DRM-free content signal another nail in the coffin for the music industry? Will artists soon need to earn their bread and butter through touring? The same old questions keep resurfacing and at the end of the day, slotMusic does little to answer them. But for the moment, it could provide a prop to the music industry – and a much-needed bridge between physical and digital distribution.

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