Following competitors’ footsteps on a path that promises to obliterate the line between what once were standalone devices, Sony Ericsson said it plans to launch a line of phones under the Walkman brand that are much a portable music player as a phone handset.
The devices are just the latest to take aim at the dominance in the portable digital music player niche enjoyed by Apple’s iPod. Already this week, Nokia said it would launch a line of smartphones designed to offer better sound quality and direct-download capability, which it said it would work with Microsoft to develop.
Analysts have predicted that iPod’s prominence would only be threatened when more advanced combination devices became available that matched the iPod for sound quality and hipness.
The Walkman phone might have an upper hand in that sense, since the brand brings instant credibility in the music space. In some ways, the entire current generation of portable music devices can be traced back to the launch of the original Walkman line some 25 years ago. Sony says some 350 million Walkmans have been sold over that period.
The Walkman phone will handle music on the same platform — advanced audio coding, or AAC — that Apple’s iTunes Music Store employs.
Sony President Miles Flint announced the phones during the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France. The first of the phones are expected to be ready to be trotted out at the European Cebit trade show in Germany early next month.
Sony Ericsson is far from alone in hoping to merge the two technologies. Nokia this week said it would work with Microsoft to create a direct-download service to import songs to 3G-enabled phones.
Apple itself is moving to block any forays onto its turf. A Motorola-branded cell phone that works directly with the iTunes Music Store is due out this spring.
While most analysts see no immediate threat to Apple’s market dominance through iPod, the potential damage to Apple is so significant that Standard & Poors recently said in a research note that Apple might be relying too heavily on the iPod for growth and profits.
The torrent of phones with new features and capabilities is all part of a larger trend, analysts say, that is aimed at turning phones into devices that are as hyper-connected to the Web as the average desktop PC.
Nokia, for instance, recently announced it would work with Macromedia to develop a mobile-friendly version of Flash, which could speed the arrival of truly phone-friendly Web pages.
All that, in turn, could accelerate mobile commerce, especially in what are expected to be the earliest adopted realms — location services such as maps and directions, music downloads and streaming media.
“Everyone is trying to get to the same place — where connectivity is constant and ubiquitous,” Gartner analyst Ben Wood told the E-Commerce Times.
Wood noted that phone makers are basically all over the map on how to best boost adoption of mobile use ahead of widespread 3G rollout, with some favoring high-end, fully loaded devices and others promising to bring lower-cost handsets to market.
A Direct Attack?
“Consumers will have a wide range of choices, not just for phones, but in terms of what kind of devices they use in combination,” Wood said. “Whoever does the best job of positioning over the next year or two will be in good shape.”
Apple aficionados immediately took note that the Walkman phone would work with AAC. The first wave of the phones are expected only to be capable of downloading music that already is on a computer, whether having been ripped from CDs or coming from a download service such as iTunes. The phone will connect to PCs to make the transfer.
Going forward, however, the phones will be capable of directly downloading songs or in being updated with licensed songs from online music stores, much in the way the iPod is now.
To date, phones with MP3 players have largely had the music player added on as an accessory, with most offering tinny sound quality and little storage space. Another recurring complaint is the difficulty in manipulating menus, which Apple has tried to overcome with its click wheel and other features.
IDC analyst David Linsalata said single-function PDAs have already seen their market share decimated by smartphones.
Although it remains to be seen whether that can happen to music players, the trend is clearly toward combined devices.
“Consumers have shown a preference for a single device that can do everything and also keep them connected,” he said.