MP3 Players: Why do other manufacturers bother?

Sony recently released their iPod Shuffle-sized Network Walkman NW-E507 to cheers of roughly 3 people. The makers of the console-gaming dominant leader Playstation2 and the previously paradigm-defining Walkman cassette and CD players have joined the pack valiantly, if vainly trailing behind Apple’s line of culturally-iconic iPod line.
Sony has been long known for high-quality consumer electronics, showing steady profits in Audio/Video (excepting, of course the ill-fated Betamax in the 1970’s), home electronics, digital cameras and camcorders, console and handheld gaming and computers with the solid, if unexceptional Vaio line.
The new Network Walkman, already doomed by a name apparently thought up by the development engineers and passed over by Sony’s normally-excellent marketing department, boasts up to 50 hours of playback between charges, but it seems that is the main advantage to this tiny player. The form factor is similar to the Shuffle, about the size of a 5-stick pack of Juicy Fruit, and comes with a solid pair of earbud headphones. So far, so good. The next interesting selling point of the Network Walkman is that it contains an integrated FM tuner. As the exponential increase in both Podcasting and satellite-based radio is indicating, FM may be going the way of the cassette tape. A Sirius or XM radio tuner could have been a better-conceived value-added conception; besides, isn’t the point of a music player that one doesn’t need to listen to broadcast commercials… oops–I mean, music?
Capacity is a respectable 1 GB (approximately 600 songs at 128-bit .mp3 encoding), and with the vaunted battery life, contains enough music to stun a Muse. The days of the 64 MB players is hopefully long gone, as they and their 32 MB and even 128 MB kin were doomed from the start.
Form factor is acceptable, battery life is superb, and the navigation system is one up on the Shuffle with an LCD display and the ability to navigate through a folder system rather than just hit �random play� and hope for the best. Score 1 for the NE, no– NW-ER5734-something-or-rather; no, that’s not right either… Walkman Network thingy.
Now for the down side(s): the 1 GB flagship model retails for $299, $170 more than the 1 GB iPod Shuffle. Granted, the LCD and the FM tuner are neat, but worth $170? One (1) Oops. Next comes the file formats supported�first, the iPod Shuffle, with .mp3, AAC (protected and non-), .m4b (audiobook), Audible formats 2, 3, and 4 and WAV, and these are for both Mac and Windows, and work seamlessly with the iTunes Music Store, the largest and most successful (legal) audio download method in history. And here comes the challenger: supported are .mp3. WMA and WAV and ATRAC3/ATRAC3plus (huh?). In a recent study, ATRAC3 turned out the worst in sound quality of any of the leading sound compression formats. And no iTunes Music Store support, meaning that to utilize the iTMS, one would have to download, then re-encode into .mp3�possible, but a pain in the tail. Or one could use the Connect music store, run by Sony, but it only supports Internet Explorer 5.5 and up. Is anyone actually still using Internet Exploder for anything? Point to the Shuffle.
No iTMS support, no support of AAC, great battery life, dubious distinction of FM tuner and fantastically ill-considered price point, when for $50 less, one could pick up a 6 GB iPod Mini, and no official Apple support�go get the iPod mini and spend the extra $50 on tunes! Keep trying, Sony… [Britt Godwin]