SanDisk to Offer DRM-Free Music on microSD

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SanDisk is (one again) taking a shot at the retail music business, today announcing slotMusic, a new initiative that will offer music from all four major record labels on 1 GB microSD cards in DRM-free, 320 Kbps MP3 format. The cards will be available at both brick-and-mortar retailers like Wal-mart and Best Buy along with online resellers, with European distribution coming soon.

Although getting into the retail music business is tricky, SanDisk is betting that the ubiquity of the microSD format—which is a de facto standard on a wide range of portable media players, cameras, and phones, as well as notebook and even desktop computers—will make slotMusic a viable alternative to standard CDs. But systems won’t even have to have a microSD slot: slotMusic cards will ship with a tiny USB sleeve to the cards can be accessed on any system with a standard USB port: PC, Mac, or Linux. USB compatibility expands the possible market for slotMusic to literally any music-capable computer or device with a USB port, including a growing number of in-car audio systems.

SanDisk plans to announce a full lineup of slotMusic albums that will be available in time for the end-of-year holiday season. The 1 GB capacity of the cards will enable artists to put a full CD of music onto a slotMusic card, along with extra content like lyrics, liner notes, album art, photos, and even video. Users will also be able to add their own content to a slotMusic card.

SanDisk hasn’t unveiled any pricing for slotMusic titles; presumably, consumer pricing will vary by title and artist, with labels charging more money for hot, popular artists, and perhaps eventually offering lower-cost deals on catalog titles or compilations.

Overall, SanDisk seems to be hoping that slotMusic appeals to consumers who want to buy their music in a physical format—in this case a microSD card—and still have the advantages of digital music. With slotMusic cards, users wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of transferring and encoding CDs for use on their computers, so slotMusic would see to offer some concrete advantages over traditional CDs. However, it’s not clear how slotMusic will successfully compete with the likes of Apple’s iTunes store. Although USB ports and microSD slots are widely available, the most-used digital music players on the planet—Apple’s iPod line—doesn’t offer either. Instead, users would have to copy slotMusic tracks off the microSD card and into iTunes, then sync up with their iPod(s). Although slotMusic tracks will be mercifully DRM-free, it’s not clear whether that will be enough of an advantage to make users buy entire albums via slotMusic, or purchase individual tracks (or albums) via iTunes.

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