SanDisk Has Strong Case for Music on a Chip

slotMusic enters a vast market of devices and consumers are ready to accept the new medium.

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SlotMusic cards will hold 1GB.
SlotMusic cards will hold 1GB.

There is one compelling argument in favor of SanDisk's effort to sell music on a new medium: The players are ready and waiting.

The chip maker has announced that the four leading record companies will market albums on memory chips. Tunes will come prerecorded on tiny micro SD cards that can slip into the slots on many cellphones and music players.

Never before has a new medium entered such a vast market of players. Hundreds of millions of cellphones and players already have the slots to hold and play the new cards. That doesn't count the billion PCs that can play the unprotected MP3 music on the SD chips. Hundreds of millions more of each will be sold this year.

"It's a sea change compared to any format that's come before," says Daniel Schreiber, who manages SanDisk's audio/visual division. Vinyl records, tapes, CDs, and DVDs all were chickens without eggs (or the other way around.) Initially, too few consumers had the players and sales were sparse.

Just ask people trying to peddle Blu-ray disks. It's a slog until more players get sold.

The initiative does have to overcome many issues, including an ungainly name. We can hope "slotMusic" doesn't appear in actual marketing campaigns.

More important, anyone has to doubt the roaring success of any physical medium in an age of digital downloads. I live in a household that frequently pulls entertainment from the Internet. Music, TV shows, and movies all come across the Web, and legally.

Consumers, meanwhile, are getting used to buying a favorite single track. SanDisk's slotMusic will be albums of music. And not too many at first. Selection will be limited as the studios experiment.

But SanDisk doesn't count on dominating the music market. "The days of single modes of consumption are over," Schreiber says. SanDisk hopes the medium gets a significant slice of the market so it can sell more chips. How significant is the question.

It's notable that SanDisk has signed up the four biggest record companies at launch. They sense a chance to get music into the now-empty media players on phones. It's still too difficult today to get tracks onto most handsets and even many music players. Software is balky, cables clunky, and over-the-air downloads pricey.

The exception, of course, is for music bought from Apple's iTunes and its iPods and iPhones. Apple, not surprisingly, isn't part of today's announcement.

I don't usually carry an iPhone. I also don't carry music on my company issued BlackBerry, despite its media player. Cheap music on a chip is an impulse I might make when on the move. People will overlook shortcomings for the sake of convenience.

Cheap is the key word there. SanDisk isn't talking prices, saying retailers will set those when the chips go on sale later this year. One credible report suggests the prices would range between $7 and $10. Another says they'll be around $15 an album.

The first means success. The second doesn't. With all the choices, it's hard to understand why we'd pay a premium for music on a chip.