Ipods, music pirates or victims of industry

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Can disks overtake discs in Japan's portable audio player market?

Apple Computer Inc.'s immensely popular iPod mini music player will finally hit local store shelves today. Not to be outdone, Japanese electronics manufacturers are rolling out their own products equipped with large-capacity hard disk drives.

Together, the companies are determined to crack the market dominated by Mini Disc (MD) and compact disc (CD) players.

MD players accounted for an overwhelming 59 percent of Japan's portable audio player market in 2003, according to researcher GfK Marketing Services Japan Ltd., which tracks unit sales at mass electronics retailers. Larger CD players followed with a 29-percent share.

The share of digital music players, which hold music files on hard disk drives or memory microchips, was a scant 2.1 percent. The figure remained almost unchanged from 2000, when digital products made their debut.

Japanese music fans traditionally copy from CDs, often borrowed from rental shops, to more handy MDs.

Few are accustomed to downloading onto a digital player via a personal computer, industry analysts say.

But Apple Computer executives vow to change the music-listening landscape with the iPod mini.

Yoshiaki Sakito, vice president in charge of the Japanese market, says the product's ease of use and sophisticated design have won a large following, including among young women.

``You can't do without it once you realize how easy it is to edit (song lists) on a PC,'' he said, adding that it takes no more than a thumb to operate the iPod mini.

About the size of a business card, the iPod mini can store about 1,000 songs on a 1-inch hard disk drive. At 103 grams, it weighs about 60 percent as much as its larger cousin, the iPod.

The ballyhooed iPod mini is already stirring interest. In the week through...