During the 1990s, in the San Francisco area, you ended up hearing a lot of hyperbolic philosophizing about the digital future. Some of it made a lot of people a lot of money; other parts of it lost another group of people a lot of money as well. In retrospect the mistakes were mostly due to timing. Everything is definitely going to change, but it all hasn’t happened just yet.

So on the day-to-day perspective, it’s hard to see what’s important and what’s not, who gets it and who doesn’t, what company is on the verge of riding the next wave and which one, doggedly sticking to old paradigms, is about to get swamped.

A new product called SlotMusic, wrong on so many levels, is a case in point. Its introduction was treated solemnly by the papers today. (WSJ story here; NYT blog entry here. AP’s version is here.)

The company introducing it, SanDisk, has gotten four majors to agree to market albums on one-gig memory cards. They fit into most modern cell phones and are said to be going to be sold with USB converters attached allowing them to be connected an downloaded to computers as well. The idea is to sell 320-kbps Mp3s, with album atr attached.

Depending on which paper you read, these will cost $15 (the WSJ) or $7 to $10 (the NYT).

Right now, you can buy a CD and easily import it into your computer and thence to your iPod or any other MP3 player. Or you can eliminate the physical fuss and download most albums; most smart phones let you do that as well.

This product seems to be directed at people for whom those two alternatives don’t work, primarily plain old cellphone users who for some reason want certain albums on their cell phones and can figure out that they can also stick the tracks on their computer so they won’t disappear with the cell phone. That may be a decent sized market; you have to assume the product was market-researched. But it has the feel not of a new mass-market media format but something like an impulse buy that will be hung up on racks in the cell-phone section of the Best Buy.

But, for the record, here’s what’s wrong with the format:

1) Consumers don’t want only to buy albums. The format is a transparent attempt to sell people songs they don’t want along with the ones they do—an they are trying to sell them to the audience most resistant to the album model: Kids comfortable with media on their phones.

2) Instead of weening consumers off physical formats, this is a step backward: The introduction of a new one.

3) The cost estimates vary so widely it’s hard to judge what the industry’s plans are, but it’s hard to believe they will try to market the things on the high end the Journal story mentioned.
p.s. By the way, an aside insome of the Times’ coverage of the format gives an indication o some of the pricing craziness that prevails these days:

SanDisk won’t say more than that it expects the price at retail to be about the same as a CD. One executive of a major record label told me he expected the albums-on-a-card to sell for $7 to $10. Since Wal-Mart is selling a 1-gigabyte MicroSD card (the size used for SlotMusic) for $15.98 these days, that seems like a fine value. (Yes, you can erase the music and use the storage on the card for something else.)

Here again, many questions are raised. Who woudl pay $15 for a one-gig card like that? How can SanDisk and the record companies afford to sell cards with a $10 CD on it for $7? And if the format does happen to be successful, won’t it effectively vaporize the MicroSD card market, with lots of the little SlotMusic cards floating around?

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