Saturday, May 07, 2005

The iPod is Not a Fad 

Since many companies are releasing their quarterly results about now, I happened to notice a few days ago that some analysts have been predicting an iPod "backlash," or "white earbud fatigue," because with it's insane market dominance, the iPod will stop being cool. I disagree with this theory for a number of reasons.

First of all, the iPod is not a pair of Ugg boots. It's a functional device, and how fashionable it is is only one consideration people have when deciding what to buy. That is probably why luxury brands for things like cars, watches, and hotels have much more staying power compared to things like clothes and hair styles. Given the portability of a small music player, something aesthetically pleasing is very desirable, but in a device people want to have with them at all times, the elegance and simplicity of its interface is part of the luxury. I think a large part of the gap between Apple's market share and that of other major players can be explained not so much by Apple's hipness, but by how well-designed their offerings are.

First of all, the scrollwheel is an excellent interface for such a device. The latest incarnation is very advanced, and works wonderfully. By being circular, you can easily scroll through a list without having to stop. The problem for competitors is that there's one company that owns all the patents on these touch-screen devices (Synaptics), and they have an exclusivity deal with Apple on a circular scrollwheel. Zen has equipped its players with a straight up and down region that accelerates like Apple's scrollwheel, and other players use directional buttons and other similar interfaces, but you don't even have to try them out to know that they just don't cut it in comparison. Eventually Synaptics's patents will expire, but until then, I think Apple will be able to write a check large enough to keep their exclusivity with Synaptics. So this is a pretty hard mountain for a competitor to climb.

On top of that, no one else seems to have their act together with respect to the software. Part of what makes the iPod so wonderful to use is the excellent integration with iTunes, which enforces a model of your iPod's library that is easy for users to understand: when you connect your iPod, it will be synchronized to match your iTunes library. Other devices require various other software packages to manage and synchronize your music library, and these other pieces of software are not as mature or well-designed as iTunes. Yes, there is some increase in choice in that certain pieces of software work with devices by different manufacturers, but not all of them. The major pieces of software (Sony Connect, Napster) seem to be more interested in selling you their subscription music than helping you rip, manage, or play your music on your computer, which would result in my not using it (but that's just me).

It seems inevitable that the software/hardware integration problem will get better on the non-Apple platform, but I'm not seeing any movement on that at all so far. The hardware manufacturers themselves probably don't have the resources to invest in creating amazingly great software themselves. It's hard to see Napster shifting their interfaces to be "music management with a music store" instead of "a music store with library management," since that is the only thing they make money on, but Sony might do it. Any day now, they might start getting their act together on the software. Soon.

But the scrollwheel issue is much harder to solve. And as time goes on, all those people who have been buying those third of a billion songs on iTunes Music Store seem less and less likely to walk away from their investment in those files, and buy them again somewhere else so that they can use a (possibly excellent) non-iPod device.
Just wait for the Motorolla iPod phone to come out. That might lie between iPod and Ugg boots.

I'd consider getting one if the price was right. Just as I'd love to see Apple offer a tablet machine with intelligent keyboard design.
www.getipodsforfree.com has this cool thing where if you just sign up and do an offer, you can get a free ipod
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