The Los Angeles Times has an interesting story about an underappreciated and often forgotten player in the portable media player market. SanDisk is realistically the only company that's legitimately challenging Apple right now, but they're also the company Microsoft's Zune must bump aside if they want to take the number two position.

SanDisk ... has carved out a successful business as the No. 2 maker of digital music players, targeting people who want to spend less than $150.

SanDisk is seeing how low it can go. One of its newest players, the Sansa Shaker, is aimed at kids and shaped like a toy bongo drum. It's sold at retailers including Walgreens and Wal-Mart for only $30.

The tiny Sansa Clip player with 1 gigabyte of storage goes for $40, half the price of an iPod shuffle with the same capacity.

When your main competitor controls 69 percent of the market, you need a good rallying cry to motivate the troops. For SanDisk, it's simple: Target the market that Apple neglects.

"Apple products are works of art," said Daniel Schreiber, a SanDisk senior vice president and general manager of its audio and video business unit. "We're looking to make devices that you don't need to worship."

The strategy seems to be working. For the 12 months ended in August, SanDisk made 11 percent of all digital music players sold in the U.S., up from 9 percent a year earlier. Apple's market share during that time fell to 69 percent from 72 percent. Music players from Creative Technology Ltd., Microsoft Corp. and Samsung Electronics Co. each captured less than 5 percent of the market.

Yikes. You don't see that statistic thrown around very often: Apple actually lost market share over the past year, almost all of it to SanDisk. Interesting.

SanDisk does hold one advantage over its larger rival: It makes flash memory, the key ingredient in many digital music players. It sells the memory to cell phone and digital camera makers.

"The mere fact that they were the dominant player the first five years doesn't mean it will be true the next five," SanDisk's Schreiber said

That's for sure. 

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