David Pogue Of NY Times Reviews Sony Connect Music Service

in General Discussion edited January 2014
Mr. Pogue, a very pro-Apple writer I might add, isn't too kind. Clearly the site needs work. Sounds like it was done by the same people who provide English instruction manuals for Japanese products.

May 6, 2004

STATE OF THE ART From Sony, the Hits and Misses


OO-WOO! Clang, clang! All aboard!

Yes, kids, the train is leaving the station. It's the Online $1-a-Song Music Express, and your company had better be on it. Apple, Napster, Musicmatch, MusicNow, BuyMusic, RealNetworks, Dell, Microsoft and even Wal-Mart have either seats or reservations. You wouldn't want to be left behind.

That, apparently, was the thinking behind Sony Connect, the new online music service that opened for business on Tuesday. It's an easy-to-use but, in its debut version, almost embarrassingly crude imitation of the music services that preceded it.

The twist: You know how the iPod is the only portable player compatible with Apple's popular iTunes music service? In the same way, songs from Sony Connect play back only on certain Sony music players (so-called Atrac-compatible Memory Stick-based players and MiniDisc players). Sony says 2.5 million such Sony players have been sold in the United States, and predicts even greater popularity for its new Hi-MD minidisc players: at the lowest music quality, they hold up to 45 hours of music per $7 disc. For the owners of all these Sony players, to be sure, a crude copycat service is better than no service at all.

But Sony Connect makes the rules of the online music game more confusing. Music fans already had to contend with two incompatible music copy-protection formats: Apple's AAC files (compatible only with iPods) and Microsoft's WMA format (used by Napster, Musicmatch, Wal-Mart and others). Sony's music service employs yet another format, called Atrac. Predictably, Atrac files don't play on any of the three million iPods or the four million WMA-compatible players in use. Unless you have a Sony player, Atrac may as well be 8-track.

(Officially, by the way, Sony wishes to distance itself from the notion that its songs-and-hardware formula was inspired by Apple's wildly successful iTunes-iPod model. Sony points out that whereas Apple doesn't share its AAC format with anyone, Atrac is available for licensing by other music-player makers. So far in the United States, though, there have been no takers.)

If you've used one of the existing song-downloading services, you'll be right at home with Sony Connect. A program called Sony SonicStage (for Windows 98 and later, free from www.connect.com) serves as a digital jukebox. It lets you organize your computer's collection of music files into playlists and burn them onto audio CD's in any order.

SonicStage is also the gateway to the music service, a searchable online database of songs whose electronic rights have been made available. Like its rivals', the Sony collection of 500,000 songs is heavily slanted toward commercial pop, with a few classical, comedy and soundtrack albums thrown in for seasoning. (The Beatles, Madonna, Led Zeppelin and other reluctant rights-givers are conspicuously absent.)

You can listen to a 30-second sample of a song, download a song for $1 or download an entire album for $10. At that point, you can burn your music onto CD's, transfer them to Sony portable players or copy them onto a couple of other Windows computers. They're copy-protected so generously that only dedicated eye-patched music pirates would object.

Apple is sometimes accused of worshiping at the altar of cool design at the expense of practicality, but Sony Connect takes that concept to a ridiculous extreme. The best thing you can say about SonicStage is that it's certainly not cluttered. The problem is that it's practically empty. The list of songs huddles in a small square area, floating in a vast ocean of light gray screen margin. Expect to do a lot of scrolling.

And a lot of cursing. The "live" area inside Sony's enormous waste of pixels is much too small for the software's seven columns of information (title, artist, album and so on). As a result, many song or album names are chopped off, abbreviated by ellipses. Search for "Britney Spears,'' and you find a song called "Me Against the " (Wind? Establishment? Grammarian?). A jazz album is called "Louis Armstrong and " (Friends? Company? His All-Zither Band?). Billy Joel offers "Scenes From an " (Anthill? Antiwar Demonstration? -noying Software Designers?).

Now, in most jukebox software - like Apple's, Napster's or Musicmatch's - you would simply adjust the column widths or hide the columns you don't need. But the columns in SonicStage are fixed in width, and you can't hide or rearrange them. And don't think you can outsmart Sony by buying a bigger monitor, either; as the screen gets larger, only SonicStage's gray margins expand, not the live area.

Otherwise, Sony Connect is almost exactly like its predecessors - but less. Most songs are $1, but Sony arbitrarily doubles the price of any song longer than seven minutes. (Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" on Musicmatch.com or iTunes costs $1. On Sony Connect: $2.) This tactic makes no logical sense - since when is a song's value determined by its length? - and therefore smacks of simple greed.

Similarly, most music services let you burn a certain playlist of songs onto 10 CD's. Sony Connect advertises the same feature - but the fine print reveals that you can burn only five standard audio CD's. The other five must be Atrac CD's, a kind of disc that holds many more songs but plays back only on 11 models of Sony CD players. (In other words, you can't play an Atrac CD in your car, which is a chief reason for burning a CD in the first place.)

Note, too, that SonicStage can't rip audio CD's (that is, copy their songs onto your hard drive) into the most popular music format, MP3, as Musicmatch and iTunes can. Sony says that thwarting song piracy was its aim, but why should you, the honest music lover, suffer as a result?

Software annoyances are everywhere. When you search, for example, no progress bar tells how much longer you have to wait, so you conclude that the software hasn't responded and pointlessly click again. The scroll wheel on your mouse doesn't work in the list area until you click there first, either.

But above all, Sony Connect lacks the lively community elements that make its rivals so much fun: discussion boards, album articles, Internet radio stations, Billboard charts, gift certificates, monthly allowances, audio books, free weekly song downloads, music videos, movie trailers, customer playlist sharing and so on. The only shopping guidance you get are a Staff Picks list, a Celebrity Mixtapes list and - for some albums - one-sentence reviewer quotes. The whole thing feels put together by accountants, not music lovers.

To be fair, although the newborn Sony Connect is as barren as a parking lot in Antarctica, it's not entirely idea-free. A few tendrils of fresh thinking are visible through the six-foot snowbanks of commercialism. You can, for example, specify which musical genre you want to use as your "home page." And if you want to play the songs you have purchased on a second or third computer, you don't have to copy them manually from the first machine; you can download them again directly from Sony Connect without cost, which is handy if you and that second PC happen to be 3,000 miles from home.

Sony also says it will soon allow payment for songs using unique currencies, like United Airlines frequent-flier miles. A deal with McDonald's is in the works, too, although the companies haven't announced what the unique currency will be. (Big Mac wrappers? Used ketchup packets?)

Clearly, many of Sony Connect's problems have to do with the inefficiency and inconsistency of its software; the rest have to do with the sparseness of its feature offerings. Both could therefore be fixed with a little more time, a little more effort and a little less greed. Fortunately, Sony acknowledges the problems and the featurelessness - particularly the software's inflexible, space-wasting design - and promises that an overhauled version will appear by summer's end. Individual service features like music videos will appear even sooner.

But in its first incarnation, you'd never guess that this service comes from a company that's both the world's most recognized consumer-electronics brand and the owner of one of the world's biggest record companies. For the time being, maybe they ought to call it Sony Disconnect.


  • Reply 1 of 2
    buonrottobuonrotto Posts: 6,368member
    Well, to be fair, Apple has made a lot of tracks longer than 7 minutes on pop/rock albums available only by buying the whole album. For many classical tracks, the cut-off seems to be about 10 minutes. I'd rather pay $2 than be forced to buy the album. And the available download from the store after purchase is a nice touch. It sounds like the software UI and features need a lot of work otherwise, which is of course where Apple expects to compete well versus services like this. Other than that major hang-up, it sounds about the same as the iTMS.
  • Reply 2 of 2
    messiahtoshmessiahtosh Posts: 1,754member
    Pogue is an awesome writer and he is usually pretty blunt about whatever the issue is.

    And now, as always (starting yesterday) is my "ridiculous picture of Bill Gates."

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