The iPod has its iTunes. The Zune will have its Marketplace. Starting today, the SanDisk Sansa e200 has its own custom-built music ecosystem: Rhapsody 4.
Minutes ago, RealNetworks announced the availability of Rhapsody 4, the follow-up to the popular Rhapsody 3 music jukebox software and service. A cleaner interface and convenient new features aside, Rhapsody 4 is now the home base for a tweaked version of the Sansa e200, known to the folks at Real as the "Sansa Rhapsody" player (and officially as the Sansa e200R).
Rhapsody 4 has a cleaner interface. More importantly, it is optimized for use with the SanDisk Sansa e200R. PlaysForSure devices, as well as the iPod, will continue to work in this version of Rhapsody.
So what exactly does this mean? Has Rhapsody morphed into a closed system just like iTunes? Is the revved-up e200R locked into a marriage with Rhapsody? Short answers are no and no, and because of these answers (and more), I think this is one music ecosystem that consumers should pay attention to.
Just a couple of weeks back, SanDisk and Real jointly announced their partnership, which revolves around a technology platform (and marketing initiative) dubbed Rhapsody DNA. In a nutshell, the DNA is the underlying software that optimizes the relationship between the e200R and Rhapsody. As we have witnessed with the iPod/iTunes relationship, the chief benefit of this direct link is that the hardware and software can work seamlessly with one another without anything getting in the way. And that anything is PlaysForSure.
SanDisk Sansa e200R in the flesh. Notice the Rhapsody Channel menu item.
Though Microsoft has stated that it will continue to support PlaysForSure (PFS), it's more focused on supporting its Zune ecosystem. It's also never been an easy task for hardware and software producers such as Samsung or Real to get Microsoft's aid in fixing PFS hiccups, which has included inconsistent experience of transferring subscription tracks to devices or even getting them recognized at all in a jukebox such as Virgin Digital, Napster, or Rhapsody. "We can't get them to fix the bugs," says Anu Kirk, Real's director of product management for music.
This is the problem inherent with supporting such a wide array of devices for a wide array of music services with a middleman technology platform (Microsoft); both Real and Microsoft have recognized the need for what I call a "seamless and idiotproof" experience. In fact Real had been mulling a move away from PlaysForSure since as far back as 18 months, way before the Zune was on anybody's radar. Now that Real has control over its DNA, bugs can be addressed in real time, not as one music service executive once referred to as "Microsoft time." In addition, Real's Kirk explained (and demonstrated for me) that no PlaysForSure means more room for innovation.
Multiple music ecosystems = format battle royale?
So Real is matched up with a partner that has quickly become number two in U.S. MP3 players sales (about 14 percent) behind Apple, and with a player has been commended for its long feature list, its size, and its good battery life. Outside of Rhapsody branding, the e200R has the same physical look and feel as the e200, as well as the same capacities (up to 8GB) and prices. Even the firmware looks similar with some major exceptions:
Do you like what SanDisk and Real are doing?
I have been playing around with the Rhapsody 4 beta plus an e200R sample, and so far the experience is refreshing. In my brief time within this ecosystem, I got the things that matter most: a great selection of music, device reliability, some innovative features, and most importantly, I get all this without being tied down to Rhapsody. Rhapsody is still missing integrated video and photo support for the Sansa (use Sansa Media Converter), and of course you're limited to the Sansa's 8GB (or 10GB with expansion) capacities, but this is a good start to an ecosystem that will butt heads with Apple and Microsoft.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET Reviews.