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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

March 15, 2007 at 12:54 PM

Zune drops price, faces competition from Slacker

In this morning’s paper, I saw Office Depot was offering Zunes for $199 after rebate, down from the original $250 price.

Then I checked my e-mail and found a press release from Slacker, a San Diego company launching a new music subscription service it calls Personal Radio and a device that looks like trouble for Zune 1.0.

Slacker Inc.

The Personal Radio

For $7.50 a month Slacker users will be able access millions of songs. (It works with Windows Media content, so perhaps the company is using Microsoft’s DRM for this service.) Slacker organizes the music in several ways, including a huge variety of “stations” dedicated to a particular artist.

The players match or exceed the Zune’s key features — screens bigger than an iPod, Wi-Fi connectivity and a groovy, alternative vibe (Slacker launched at SXSW).

But instead of using the Wi-Fi to share music directly with other devices, the Slacker players will use the radios to access the service’s Internet-based music library. They’ll also be able to cache music on the device, for listening offline.

Slacker does have some sharing — it lets users send a URL pointing to their “station” choices to friends via email or instant messages.

Here’s the company’s pitch:

For the first time, Slacker Personal Radio Players will enable music lovers to play personalized radio everywhere they go. The new devices include integrated Wi-Fi and an on-board Slacker DJ. The Slacker DJ combined with the new Slacker caching system guarantees personalized CD quality radio stations to be played everywhere, even when not in Wi-Fi range. Slacker customers get deep, personalized radio stations with optimized radio programming sequences, continuously refreshed and updated to include personalized new music.

Additional Slacker device features include:

— 4″ full screen display featuring album art /reviews, artist photos/bios and visualizations

— Support for MP3, WMA and video as well as “saved” radio tracks

— Automatically save and refresh personalized stations via Wi-Fi, satellite or USB

The satellite thing is really intriguing, but the FAQs reveal that’s a feature available with an optional car kit, not directly from the device.

Slacker said it’s negotiating to put its music service on additional devices. It’s already partnering with Sony to distribute music from Sony’s library; could a Slacker Wi-Fi Walkman be in the works? How about Slacker on a PSP?

Either way, this may push the Zunesters to start doing more with Wi-Fi sooner rather than later.

UPDATE: A Zune spokeswoman called Friday asking where I’d heard about the $50 rebate, implying that it’s not being handled by Microsoft and therefore the company isn’t using rebates to indirectly lower the Zune price. I told her she should subscribe to the printed version of the Times, which carried the ad for $199 Zunes on Thursday.

Comments | More in | Topics: Gadgets & products, Zune

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