Sony has made an announcement that it is ending support for its proprietary ATRAC format.

Sony issued a press release, which, on the surface, seemed to herald an excitement-filled event--the release of two new multi-featured Walkman players, which would include video support for the first time.

While this was an announcement of some significance and anticipation, the carefully worded fine print of the release sounded a far different tune for Sony.

Near the end of the release, Sony stated that:
All of the new players are compatible with security-enhanced Windows Media Audio and support most subscription music services
It goes on to casually mention:
As a result, Sony will be phasing out the CONNECTMusic Services based on Sony's ATRAC audio format in North America and Europe. Specific timing will vary by region depending on market demand, but will not be before March 2008.  The CONNECT e-book service for the Reader will not be affected.
While Sony's CONNECT store has by no means been a commercial hit, it is surprising to hear that Sony will not be providing ATRAC support as its Walkman players have featured support for the various ATRAC codecs, since the format's release in the 90s.

Matt Moore of the Associated Press further elaborated on ATRAC's fate in an article followin
g this press release:

Sony spokeswoman Linda Barger said the new Walkman players will no longer directly support ATRAC.

We are offering conversion software to convert ripped non-secure ATRAC files to MP3,' she said in an e-mail.'

From the now defunct Betamax, to today's Blu-Ray Disc format, Sony has always invested heavily in developing and commercially promoting its own proprietary formats.

ATRAC was no exception.  ATRAC, which stands for
Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding, is a set of audio compression algorithms, akin to the MP3 compression format.  It was first commercially released in 1992, with Sony's Walkman players, which used the format to compress audio for the now defunct Mini-Disc format.  As well as providing compression, ATRAC engineer's designed it with the intention of encoding audio at high speeds with minimal power consumption.  Since its inception, ATRAC has seen four iterations developed by Sony -- ATRAC1, ATRAC3, ATRAC3plus, and ATRAC Advanced Lossless.

Sharp and Panasonic have provided third party support in the past, for the format, creating their own implementations of the ATRAC codec, for use in their Mini-Disc players.

With Sony's announcement, it appears that this format is finally approaching extinction.

Curiously, Sony's webpage for the ATRAC format makes no reference to these developments.

Sony's Connect store's impending closure may be slightly less surprising, as the store is still relatively new, having just been created in 2005, and has been the victim of many problems.   The store was initially intended to provide a service similar to iTunes.

CNET's John Borland released an excellent story on the history of CONNECT's problems, titled "How Sony failed to Connect, again".  It chronicles how the service has been plagued by problems since its creation, stemming from internal disputes among the development team and bug-prone software releases, which yielded a large amount of negative customer-feedback.

Aside from the issues of attempting to deal with the difficulties of promoting a proprietary format and dealing with the Connect store's problems, Sony's biggest problem in the portable music industry, has simply been weak sales of its Walkman® player line.

Bloomberg, who compiled a list of the top electronics retailers in various sectors by market share, for the month of March 2007, indicated that Sony was not among the top five sellers in the MP3 player market.  The top five sellers, respectively, were Apple, Sansdisk, Creative Labs, Microsoft and Samsung.  Similarly, The NPD Group released sales figures for flash-memory MP3 player sales, which revealed that Sony had no players that were among the ten highest-selling models for the year through June.

With the demise of Connect and ATRAC impending, Sony, once the clear leader in portable audio, faces an uncertain future in this sector, as it attempts a tough uphill battle to regain significant market share, in one of electronics industry's most competitive markets.

"I modded down, down, down, and the flames went higher." -- Sven Olsen
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