Sandisk inserts ABBA into Slot B with slotMusic player

Much of the focus of slotMusic, SanDisk’s attempt to rekindle physical media sales by packaging high-quality MP3 albums along with other digital assets on a 1 GB microSD card, was on cell phones. After all, the number of microSD-enabled cell phones is probably already larger than the MP3 player market, and if it isn’t, it’s only a matter of time before it will be. In fact, when I first spoke with SanDisk about slotMusic, the company explained that it decided to go with rewriteable memory precisely because it wanted some digital storage available for the cell phone to use while a slotMusic album was inserted.

Among the top three portable music player companies, Sandisk is the only one to support removable media and so slotMusic could have been a good fit for lower-end players like the USB connector-equipped Sansa Express. But the company has pulled a little something out of its hat for the slotMusic launch — a new low-end Sansa slotMusic player designed for use specifically with slotMusic. It has no internal flash memory, no USB connector, and no display. In some ways, it’s a throwback to earlier devices such as some of  the RCA Lyra RD series players, which exclusively used Compact Flash cards for storage. Alone, it’s priced a hair above the cost of a new CD at just under $20. I’s also available in themed bundles featuring artists such as ABBA and Robin Thicke for $35.

Speaking of RCA, the brand enjoyed some success a few years back with its Rip n’ Go shelf systems that were able to load up a companion MP3 player by directly ripping CDs to it. Sandisk also promotes the slotMusic player as being a PC-free and Internet-free way to enjoy digital music, a growing advantage as MP3 players saturate the PC-proficient user base,  but also notes that the player will work with its own microSD cards, which stretch to 16 GB. And how would you load those up without a PC? Also, assuming slotMusic focuses on pop music (which it must to reach high volumes), isn’t that target market already PC-literate?

Regardless, it’s fine for Sandisk to support the slotMusic initiative with its own Sansa players, but the company is going to have to keep focused on the cell phone market if slotMusic is to have a chance of success in the market..

MacBook’s pad woos Windows users, iPhone designers

MacBookWith Apple’s new MacBooks, the company’s notebooks and cell phone share more in common than ever. The iPhone already had the same core operating system as the MacBook. And now the two share more of a black and silver design motif as well as more multitouch support than ever via the MacBook’s big glass trackpad.

As leaks about the trackpad’s surface preceded the MacBook unveiling, there was speculation that the trackpad might act as second screen (because, you know, SideShow has been such a smashing success for Vista), but I was always skeptical. Sure, a creative pro might throw a few palette buttons on such a screen or perhaps it could accommodate a few Dashboard widgets, but how useful is a screen your hands are constantly hovering over? Besides, it would add significant cost with marginal benefit and just felt too gimmicky for Apple. If you need more screen real estate, buy a notebook that has a bigger screen.

But Apple did make a significant change by making the trackpad pressable and obscuring button separation, two ideas borrowed from its Mighty Mouse. In fact, the new trackpad looks like such a strong input device, there’s a case to be made for Apple offering it as a desktop peripheral. Ironically, in moving from one button to no buttons, the MacBook has become more neutral to Windows users more accustomed to two buttons as these can be designated by zones on the trackpad. I’d also like to see the capability for a third zone for power users or Unix converts.

But an even bigger win could come from moving the technology beyond the Mac. Adding some key travel to a glass surface is essentially the trick that RIM has used to make its imminent Blackberry Storm screen feel more like a physical keyboard, and early feedback toward its tactile feedback has been very positive. If Apple is willing and able to make the iPhone surface go down, the device’s appeal could go up.

Slacker relocates its star search

image With its new and vastly improved portable player, Slacker’s trek may have entered “the next generation.” but its U.S. plans may be moving away from “the final frontier.” Slacker long had plans for a car dock that would enable it to receive programming via satellite, but VP of Marketing Jonathan Sasse told me last week that the company is now looking to leverage its satellite technology primarily in developing economies due to the strength of its caching technology and alternative high-speed delivery methods becoming more viable.

When I asked him if the merger of Sirius and XM, which looked far less likely to happen in Slacker’s early days, had anything do with the decision, he said it did not. The proposed price for Sirius XM’s music-only tier is competitive with Slacker’s premium radio option. Slacker maintains that it still has the upper hand, though, because of the ability to skip tracks, even as a limited (but in my opinion generous) option for non-paying listeners.

The G1 as “the Sidekick for grownups”

imageThree highly respected voices in the handset industry have personally described the G1 to me as “a Sidekick for grownups.” One reason for the comparison is that Andy Rubin (no relation), Google’s senior director for mobile platforms, also founded Danger Research, which developed the Sidekick.

Sure enough, there are some similarities such as a scroll ball (which came to Sidekicks in their second generation) lodged into their somewhat chunky profiles and extension of the screen above the keyboard to signal a horizontal orientation. (The Sidekick, of course, does not change orientations.) Both devices also have a Java foundation. However, at least from the initial time with the device had at the G1 launch event as well as from an industry context, I’m not feeling the analogy for a few reasons:

  • Android is an open platform whereas the Sidekick was essentially a closed platform.
  • Android has support from multiple carriers whereas the Sidekick has essentially been T-Mobile’s baby.
  • The G1’s user interface, which takes advantage of its touch screen, is nothing like that of the Sidekick, which never had a touch screen. Thankfully, like the iPhone and others, the G1 has a soft keypad, which enables you to dial without having to flip open the screen as on the Sidekick.
  • Sidekick was really optimized around a messaging experience (There’s an old tale that Danger didn’t even want it to include a browser and added one only at the insistence of T-Mobile.) and was years ahead of the current rash of messaging phones such as the enV, Rumor, Blitz and others. Its browser was OK in its day, but it’s not in the same league as the G1’s, which is ready to take on modern Web sites. (Guess why.)
  • Part of the Sidekick’s architecture involved server-side software that optimized the data experience. It’s a different 3G world now and the G1 doesn’t require that.

The G1 is definitely aimed at adults; I doubt we’ll see a Tony Hawk edition or one suffocating under Swarovski crystals. But with its gesture-savvy user interface and open architecture,  it strikes me far more as an iPhone for geeks than a Sidekick for grownups.

T-Mobile G1 and iPod touch: The ultimate digital duo?

imageI’ve often described the iPod touch as “the iPhone for the rest of us,” meaning those who, for whatever reason, would rather not sign an AT&T contract.

Granted, the touch is subject to all the constraints of the Apple App Store that Ryan Block deftly delved into in his““Engadget Cares” column this week. However, also like the iPhone, it seems to beat the G1 in a few key areas such as games and media playback capabilities. If the G1 lives up to its promise of affording a strong Internet experience, friendly UI, relaxed development rules, and an abundance of programs, having the two on hand (or in hand) could provide the best of both touchscreen worlds.

And if T-Mobile permits something like TapRoot Systems’ Walking Hotspot to be developed for Android, then the iPod touch could even piggyback onto the G1 for Internet access, including Microsoft Exchange compatibility.

Redfly drops to under $200, but only until Halloween

Engadget’s been harshing on the Celio Redfly pretty severely since its debut; I suppose anything that’s even calls to mind the Foleo is going to leave a bad taste in their editorial mouths. When I first saw the device, though, I thought that $200 would be a key price point for something marketed as a smartphone accessory, so Celio will certainly pick up some interesting data points in October. At least some commenters on the Engadget post announcing the promotion think they might give the device a try at $199.

I’ve also been trying out the Redfly for a couple of weeks. It’s definitely not for everyone at this point and most consumers would be better served by a netbook that is closer to its (non-promotional) price. But one glance at the company Web site’s mention of “TCO” tells you that the company is targeting enterprise users for now. At least it is solidly positioned as a terminal, unlike the Foleo that tried to be both a smartphone companion and a new platform.

CardScan finally comes to the Mac

imageIf you’ve given me a business card in the past few years, you probably know that I’m a user of the CardScan business card scanner and what is now called the “At Your Service” update service. After eight major releases on Windows, though, the product has finally come to the Mac. Company reps told me they wanted to “get it right” and it looks like they’ve done a nice job with the UI. The killer feature is being able to browse your cards “cover flow” style.

Unfortunately, CardScan for Mac is not yet plugged into “At Your Service” but that should be on the developers’ docket.

Pocket digital photo albums attract interest

Nestled among the cheap GPS devices and novelty small-screened digital photo frames Nextar was showing at Showstoppers this week was a portable digital picture frame that resembled the pictured  My Life Digital Photo Album sold by Brookstone for about $100.  (Brookstone previously sold a 20 GB hard drive-based version that cost $300.) While the Nextar device will also feature a 3.5″ screen, it will cost only about $50.

It looks as though QVC has been making a small push with this (sub-)category. It features three battery-powered digital picture viewers with 3.5″ frames, including the recently released classy HP model that seems more intended for desktop use but has a rechargeable battery and carrying case.

I’ve always thought this product had some potential for the less technical  crowd hat had cell phones with small screens or couldn’t figure out how to get photos onto their cell phones. I’m sure Kodak must be considering getting back in after struggling with a well-executed but relatively pricey model a few years back. It was smaller and thinner than any of these models, but had only a 2.5″ screen, which is very common on digital cameras these days.

Nothing but Blu-skies for the next 10 years?

I agree with almost all the points that Rick Clancy makes as he places his bet that Blu-ray discs will be around for far greater than five years. That said, I actually think few in the industry would disagree with that. The question I’ve been asked more often is how long will Blu-ray grow, especially compared to the decade or so of growth that DVD saw, and how deep will its penetration reach, at least in the U.S..

Compared to the near monopoly that DVD had as a format for selling movies, Blu-ray will face more competition, including stronger legacy competition in the DVD. However, barring any breakthroughs such as DECE changing the nature of downloads, Blu-ray will continue to offer a superior convenience factor for movie buying.. (As for rentals, digital distribution may make inroads there more quickly.) Therefore, I think that Blu-ray will grow for more than the next five years, and see it starting to peter out in about seven or eight years.

Fonolo would be a great wireless app

imageVery often, people post ad hoc directions on how to reach customer service lines while circumventing  what an be daunting, time-consuming interactive voice response or menuing systems used by large companies. Fonolo plans to turn that into a scence wit a Web site that will list various departments at institutions such as banks, airlines and telcos. Better yet, it will call those companies, navigate the phone system menuingstructure and call you back just as the system needs your unique input.

It could be a great time-saver and, what’s more, doesn’t disrupt the systems that companies have in place. It simply automates using them. One limitation is that, in the case of long queues, Fonolo can’t “wait on line” for you, but the company says they’re working toward that.

Fonolo is a Web site, but it would be much handier as a mobile application.because most people have the least patience for such systems when they’re on their cellphones, burning up their talk time.