Slacker is about to make the transition from customized online radio outlet to a really interesting music service. The company starts taking orders today for its WiFi-enabled portable music player, which is an Internet Age version of a transistor radio. The players are pricey -- they run $200 to $300, depending on the capacity -- but they offer something nobody else does, as far as I can tell. In addition to MP3s from your personal collection, the players can store personalized Internet radio stations that you can listen to offline -- with music being supplied free of charge.
There are two versions of Slacker's music service, either of which can be used with the portable players: the ad-supported one, which is free, and the premium one, which costs $7.50 to $10 per month (the shorter subscriptions are more expensive than the longer ones). Both let users design stations around their favorite artists or genres, with adjustable amounts of repetition and eclecticism. The software translates each station into a collection of songs controlled by a digital DJ. When the portable player is synched to a PC, it loads as many of those songs as the unit can hold (capacities range from 2 to 8 Gb, and with each Slacker song taking up about 1 Mb, the players max out at 2,000 to 8,000 songs). It also loads album art and artist bios. The digital DJ then arranges the songs into playlists to fit the various stations the user chose to load. The next time the device syncs to the PC, it rotates in new songs according to the user's preferences. The songs are locked digitally to the player and, in the free version, can't be played on demand. The paid version lets users save songs from the stations so they can be played at will. It also has no commercials, and it lets users skip songs as much as they like.
The intriguing question raised by Slacker is whether music fans are willing to trade control over what they play for access to more music at lower prices. Slacker doesn't offer the music-on-demand experience offered by a conventional MP3 player, but it's not limited by the boundaries of your personal music collection, either. The target market is people with big appetites for music, who like the surprises that a good radio DJ delivers but crave much larger playlists than you'll hear on the typical commercial station. It's the same market targeted by Rhapsody, Napster and the other subscription services that offer on-demand listening as well as customized playlists. What they don't offer is free, portable music, which is Slacker's key differentiator.