Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
When Microsoft released the first Zune late last year, the company sought to highlight its main differentiator, limited sharing of music tracks to other Zunes. The viral effect of music sharing would be hard to build, though, starting from scratch in such competitive market with a $250 device. As I wrote shortly after the Zune's debut, "the place to encourage music sharing should be in software or on web sites that can easily reach millions overnight, as Napster and Rhapsody have done."
Others expressed frustration that Microsoft wasn't using the Zune's WiFi capabilities for more pedestrian tasks such as wireless syncing or wireless access of Zune Marketplace's catalog via subscription. These limitations overshadowed discussion of the value of WiFi in a digital audio player.
But not for long. Just a few months later at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, SanDisk announced the Sansa Connect, its recently shipped tripartite collaboration among the number two player in the US market, Yahoo!, and a startup called Zing that provides software and services focusing on "always connected mobile entertainment." Like other Sansas, it's based on SanDisk's foundation in flash memory (4GB) and can accommodate more with a memory card (MicroSD -- sold separately). But there's more to the player than WiFi and flash memory.
Its 2.2-inch screen crowns a revamped mechanical scroll wheel that (finally) provides tactile feedback when it highlights a new selection, and its back houses a speaker that can offer old-school social music sharing, much like SanDisk's condiment container-cast Shaker targeting Fisher-Price graduates, when the headphones aren't plugged in. However, its most distinguishing feature is the rectangular antenna enclosure that juts out of its top left corner. The attractive, colorful Zing user interface breaks out the top level of navigation into an animated fixed icon dock that pops up from the screen's bottom, offering a choice of what's now playing, internet radio, a link to Yahoo! Music recommendations, photos, friends and settings.
The Connect, which Sansa refers to as its first third-generation player, is intended to set it further apart from market leader Apple. SanDisk has succeeded not only in this but from other players that support Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM. Like the Zune that offers 7.5 times more capacity for the same price, the Connect offers neither wireless syncing nor wholesale browsable access to Yahoo! Music. However, it supports a wide range of Yahoo! Music internet radio stations and recommendation playlists. Indeed, after using the Connect for some time, you realize that its on-the-fly playlist creation is one of its best features.
However, it even goes beyond that. Ironically, while the Connect is a partnership among three companies, it integrates access to its main content provider better than any major competitor, including those like the iPod or Zune where one company controls the hardware, software and service. The Sansa Connect offers a taste of the social via recommendations sent and received by Yahoo! Messenger and live access to photos via Flickr. (Photos can also be transferred via MicroSD card.) The Sansa Connect may be the best implementation of web services ever to appear on a consumer electronics device.
Unfortunately, as was the case when I wrote about WiFi-based communication/media hybrids such as the Sony Mylo and Nokia 770 (since superseded by the N800), and unlike the old Visa slogan, the most grassroots of wireless broadband methods is far from everywhere you want to be. Outside of blankets such as college and corporate campuses that don't filter MAC addresses, homes, coffee shops, some parks and the city of Mountain View, CA, the Sansa Connect often can't connect.
Next week's column will further explore the wins, weaknesses and workarounds of WiFi connectivity and conclude with more of the Sansa Connect's problems and promise.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.