Apple hits back at Sony's 'misleading' Walkman marketing

Sony Corp.'s new hard disk-based Walkman is the product with the biggest brand recognition that Apple Computer Inc.'s market-leading iPod has had to face since its introduction. But it's not the Walkman's 25-year history that bothers Apple executives, it's Sony's marketing message. When Sony released the 20GB Walkman they claimed to have trumped Apple with the number of songs that their device could hold -- 13,000 compared to the iPod's 10,000 -- even thought the total capacity was half of the iPod's. That message is misleading to consumers, according to Apple.

"We thought it was time to help set the record straight," Greg Joswiak, vice president of Hardware Product Marketing at Apple, told MacCentral. "We're disappointed that Sony has chosen to mislead folks with a marketing gimmick -- we just want to make sure customer have the information so they can make an apples to apples comparison, if you will."

Sony's 13,000 song measurement is based on its ATRAC3 (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding for MiniDisc 3) compression system at the relatively low rate of 48Kbps (kilobits per second) while Apple's measurement is based on the AAC compression system at 128Kbps. At the same bit rate, the Walkman can store around half as many songs as the iPod, which is consistent with it having half the storage capacity.

"ATRAC3 at 48Kbps is nowhere near CD quality," said Joswiak. "It's especially interesting that Sony really acknowledges that with the fact that their jukebox software (default setting) and their online store both deliver music at 132Kbps. It's certainly an acknowledgement that it's the minimum bitrate you need with ATRAC3 and yet they chose to play a little marketing game and take their bitrate way down to make people believe their player is a higher capacity than what it is. We just find that to be misleading."

Joswiak said that Apple has always based its song count on the nearest to CD-quality compression available. For instance, the first iPod's song count was calculated using 160Kbps because the file format used was MP3. However, when Apple later introduced AAC they were able to drop the bitrate down to 128Kbps while maintaining near-CD quality.

"If we played the same trick and took it down to 64kbps, you could say the 20GB iPod could hold 10,000 songs," said Joswiak. "You could take it down to 16kbps -- which is the lowest available to us like 48kbps is the lowest available to Sony -- and we could say it holds 40,000 songs. That's something we would never claim because that's just not something a customer would do."

As the market leader, Apple is the company everyone is chasing in the online music business. Apple speculates that perhaps desperation of their competitors is leading to some of the misleading marketing ploys.

"We have so many advantages over our competitors -- the largest is the combination of hardware, software and service," said Joswiak. "Our competitors realize that's an advantage that is very difficult to match and probably unthinkable to beat. That probably breeds some desperation in how you are going to market against it -- certainly that may have gone into the thinking."

With all of the competitors that Apple has dealt with since the launch of the iTunes Music Store and the iPod, Sony's marketing seems to be the one company that has taken Apple by surprise the most.

"Certainly there is a belief that great brands will portray this honestly, as we've tried to do," said Joswiak. "Again, it's a little disappointing that Sony has chosen to do otherwise."

Representatives from Sony were not immediately available for comment.

This story, "Apple hits back at Sony's 'misleading' Walkman marketing" was originally published by PCWorld.

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