While the portable video player may be a big question mark for adults, it has already become a hit in the children's market. It all started when Hasbro released the portable, disc-based VideoNow player, which used a proprietary format to play back grainy low-resolution monochrome video at a low frame rate. Despite skepticism that black-and-white cartoons had been passé since the days of Steamboat Willie (or at least the 1985 a-ha video for "Take On Me"), Hasbro sold 1.4 million units in the first year. It followed up with the VideoNow Color, which uses a proprietary format to play back grainy, low-resolution, color video at a low frame rate.
Hasbro's arch-rival Mattel faced two choices – either release its experimental army of flesh-eating life-size Barbie robots or develop a competitive product. Given that the last time Mattel tried the Barbie robot army approach, a FOX producer discovered them and created the television series The Swan, Mattel's designers came up with the Juice Box.
Not only does Mattel�s answer to the VideoNow have a larger screen and use more compact media, but it can also play back photos and MP3s, albeit at a maximum bitrate of 128 kbps. Furthermore, getting these media into your Juice Box requires a $35 adapter. While not expensive in the absolute sense, it represents a significant premium for a product that has already been discounted to about $60 out of the gate. In contrast to the variety stocked in your supermarket, this Juice Box squeezes you.
Indeed, the real revenue stream for the Juice Box � like the VideoNow or even Game Boy for that matter � is packaged content Packaged video a is not only desirable from a supply-side perspective, but it eliminates the hassles of capturing or downloading and transferring. Rather than use discs like the VideoNow or ROM cartridges like the Game Boy, Mattel has taken a bit of a risk with a new technology from Matrix Semiconductor. Using a new 3-D chip design that stacks more capacity in the same amount of space, Matrix claims that it can deliver packaged content faster and less expensively than masked ROM and avoid the moving parts that plague discs.
Matrix is certainly not the first company to try to establish a new portable write-once format. Introduced in 2001, DataPlay sought to take on the DVD with a 500 MB disc about the size of a quarter and burdened with enough cumbersome copy protection to shame Sony�s Mini-Disc group. Despite broad investor support, its lengthy time to market left it vulnerable to the falling prices of flash memory. Two poorly received portable music players, including one from iRiver, stumbled into the market and the technology was assumed dead. Last year, though, DataPlay�s assets were purchased by a new company. It is working on new versions, including a 7GB blue-laser version, but faces an uphill battle.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.