Slacker Music Service Has Big Plans

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A new digital music service is emerging from stealth mode, and looks like it it not only wants to take on Apple’s iTunes music service and iPod media player, but also take a stab at online music services like Pandora and go toe-to-toe with satellite-based music offerings like XM and Sirius.

Slacker, from Broadband Instruments, has launched a beta of its browser-based music service today, which (on registration) offers free ad-supported access to more than 10,000 Internet-accessible music stations; users can tune into a standard offering, or create custom station by entering their music preferences. But Slacker also plans to launch a PC-based jukebox application, a portable music player, and in-car satellite-based music receivers.

In addition to its free ad-based streaming service, Slacker plans to offer an ad-free upgrade for $7.50/month which offers enhanced features (such as removing a “skip limit,” which only allows free listeners to skip six tracks in a one-hour period). The streaming service is available via everyday Web browsers, and also be accessible via Slacker’s forthcoming Jukebox application, which will not only manage stations but also find and organize music on the host computer. (No specs or system requirements have been publishers, but we’re betting it’ll support WMA protected media, but nothing from Apple’s iTunes store.) Slacker says it has deals right now with Sony BMG and Universal Music (two of the top four music distributors) along with “hundreds of independent labels.”

Slacker also plans a portable player; the device (which is “coming soon”) will feature a large 4-inch LCD display and be available in 2, 4 and 8 GB configurations, presumably using flash memory. The screen will be used to display album art as well as playlists and the device interface; users will navigate around using a scroll touch strip. Slacker says custom stations will be automatically updated on the player; the player will also sport built-in Wi-Fi so users can update playlists and (perhaps) tune into Slacker’s streaming offerings via the Internet. The players will support MP3, WMA, and “video” format in addition to saved radio programming.

Not content with that, Slacker also plans in-car kits for the player which will let Slacker listeners tune into music via ku-band satellite. The kits will download and store music so playback isn’t interrupted if you drive out of range of satellite connectivity falters.

No release dates have been announced for Slacker’s jukebox application, portable player, or car kits. Industry reports set the availability date for the portable player in mid-2007 with prices from $150 to $300. Details vary, but Slacker apparently plans to offer tracks for sale via its service instead of just streamed to players; per track pricing should be around $1 apiece.

Overall, Slacker seems to follow a Rhapsody-like subscription service model for digital music consumption rather than an Apple-like music store model, betting users would rather tune into a constant stream of pre-defined or customized music rather than listen to music they “own.” However, Slacker’s stream offerings don’t boast the kinds of unique content offered by satellite radio operators Sirius and XM; perhaps content partnerships will come along once Slacker’s service had gained some momentum. For now, Slacker seems to be targeting personalized Internet radio and aiming to break it away from the PC—it’ll be interesting to see if they can pull off their loftier ambitions.

[Updated 15-Mar-07: Added label information, player media formats]