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Tuesday, March 08, 2005, 02:00 pm PT (05:00 pm ET)

Analyst doesn’t see Sony, Naspter inroads as immediate concern

In a research report release today, Merrill Lynch analyst Steve Milunovich notes that the three new flash-based MP3 players introduced by Sony are likely to be solid sellers, but said they do not support iTunes or carry the cachet of an iPod.

Sony’s players, which are similar in size to the iPod shuffle, arrived at the shuffle’s price points: $149 for 1GB and $99 for 512MB. Sony also introduced a 256MB player for $89 — a smaller capacity player which Apple does not offer.

The analyst views Sony as Apple’s most serious competitor, but said it will be difficult to asses the impact of Sony’s new players until supply concerns associated with the iPod shuffle are alleviated.

In his report, obtained by AppleInsider, Milunovich points out that the Sony players sport a small screen, which the iPod does not. But the Sony devices use AAA batteries with a reported lifetime of 70 hours, Milunovich noted. "iPod shuffles are automatically recharged when connected to a USB port (lifetime of 16 hours)."

Earlier today, Napster CEO, Chris Gorog, said he expects to cut into Apple's dominant share of the digital music world with his company’s $14.99 a month subscription service, called Napster to Go. Milunovich downplayed this announcement, saying he does not see it having a big impact on Apple.

"We are not big believers in the subscription model where consumers pay indefinitely to listen to their favorite songs," the analyst wrote in his report. "If we're wrong, Apple can establish a subscription service with few barriers to entry."

Merrill Lynch reiterated its 'Buy' rating on Apple with a price objective of $51 per share.

Shares of Apple sunk 5.2% Tuesday on concerns that Sony's new flash-based players could take a slice away from Apple’s pie.