Why iPod killers are no joke

23 Comments

As I cruise around the Mac news web, I often see headlines that read “XYZ Corporation releases iPod killer” which is immediately followed with laughter from the Mac community about why the devices is inferior to the iPod.
I do think that it isn’t wise to immediately assume that all other music players will never be able to compete with the iTunes/iPod combination. Surely something will emerge that will dent the share of the market Apple has on digital downloads and associated players of music. I love the iPod because it is simple to use, it is easy to feed, and I finally got the kit to install one into my car’s stereo system.
Yet, if Apple took the iPod in a direction that I didn’t need or care for, I would look to other companies for a solution. I’m betting I would find a device that does what I want that isn’t from Apple.
In order to “take the iPod down” a company (or several companies) would have to do five near-impossible things. First, they would need a device that wasn’t an iPod in any form that could create it’s own iconic branding. The device would have to play anything thrown at it, and come with an app that was trouble-free and easy to use. Somehow they would have to do this without resembling the iPod or iTunes. Why? Because consumers seem to associate the iPod with digital music and downloading legit music, and any other product resembling it comes off as a cheap Taiwan knock-off. Whether this seems logical or not, that is the comments I get when asking non-geeky people.
Secondly, the device would need a multi-hundred-million dollar ad campaign that lasted a year (or more). Apple has done a great job highlighting the white ear buds, creating the “What, you don’t have white ear buds? That’s not cool” culture. Taking away from that means creating a campaign that does that without copying it.
Third, the company would have to be known for music and electronic leadership. They would have to have a reputable brand already established to gain consumer trust that the investment they are about to take in the ‘iPod killer’ is worth it and when things go awry, support is no problem.
Fourth, the device and software would have to work in many environments, i.e. under water, ALL cars with stereo systems, bathtubs, gyms, war zones, Segways, and space. It would need to be impact-resistant, because nothing is more disheartening than a dropped iPod.
Lastly, the thing would have to be very well designed both aesthetically and functionally. It might include some out of the box ideas like a built in remote control that works with the media-playing app that feeds it. Some feature that pushed the domino all the way over for the consumer to say “Hmm, I wonder why the iPod didn’t do that?”
While the competition keeps trying to make the one device that will take away from the iPod, no competitor is truly putting anything innovative out there that isn’t an iTunes/iPod clone. If you want to kill the iPod, find a way to butter up everyone’s hands so they drop their iPods on the ground. For us Apple fans, take these devices seriously because any one of them could creep up on the iPod. Eventually someone besides Apple will figure it out, and when they do, ‘iPod killer’ won’t be such a joke anymore.

23 Comments

haydn

Good Article.

If I were to design an ipod killer, I would set the player aside and concentrate on designing a media/music organizer/podcast catcher and music store, utility first, and design the player around this software. When the player is unhooked from the computer, a smaller, handheld version of the persons’ home music library is accessible, intuitive, and ready to go. I don’t want to have to do tech support for my device every time I hook up the player to the computer. I don’t want unpredictability, and bugginess, or three applications in the place of one elegant solid application. If I’m subscribed to a video podcast, I’d like the player to download the program, sync to the player, and by the time I’ve poured my morning coffee, I can unhook the player and not worry if the device is able to play the video. A five minute video podcast, shouldn’t take 15 minutes of file translation, tech support, testing and re-synching to the device.

Finally, nothing has captured my attention like the ipod has. I didn’t understand it until after I returned my ho-hum creative device for an ipod classic 80g. Aside from the capacity issues, the devices are virtually the same. Ipods are continuing to be the industry standard due to quietly maintaining a high standard of quality through 5 generations of the same player.

Just as Kleenex is generica for facial tissue. Ipod is equated with all mp3 players.

Meditry

Jonathon, If you’re looking for scratch resistance, and maybe even an easier to use, more versatile UI, I have one word, Zune, only problem for a good deal of the people here is that it’s only compatible with PC’s at this time. And none of that blind Ipod’s better crap, if loyal mac users are unwilling to research a product in fear that it might actually be better than the all powerful Ipod, so be it, but I strongly encourage that a little research be done.

Thijs

It’s all about form factor. If some company is going to make a music / smartphone device that actually(!) fits in my pocket and has the same ease of use, storage capacity and reliability, I’d say goodbye to the iPod.

Kevin Ballard

I think the reason why every time an MP3 player is branded an “iPod Killer” is a joke is because it *is*. The only way for an MP3 player to have a hope of toppling the iPod is if they stop trying to “kill” the iPod and instead try and simply create the best product they can. Any player that’s branded an “iPod Killer” has failed already.

Darryl

It’s interesting that all the pundits, talking heads, and analyst believe that cell phones with a multi-tude of functions is going to bring the downfall of the iPod. Yet, practically all the competitors in the mp3 player market have been piling in more features and more functions, in thier efforts to topple the iPod, with little and deminishing results.

What most fail to realize is that music is so different from other types of entertainment. It’s extremely personal and quality and eventually quantity become extremely important to the individual music lover.
The iPod succeeds because of it’s seemlees intergration with iTunesITMS.
It works, it’s simple.
Has anyone ever figure out how to use all the functions available on cell phones? Can you imagine the interface that a music service on a cell phone is going to have? Not to mention price per download.

Cell phone with reasonable capacity will have mass appeal, but I don’t believe it’s going to have the impact that all the mouth-pieces would have you believe.

Darryl

Jonathan Lambert

Well, I bought an IPOD 60GB video and HATED it. Options were buried in menus, the interface was overly simplified and it scratched worse than a classifcal music DJ. Not to mention to opressive DRM, and the inability to get music OFF the ipod onto other machines without third party app hacks. You’d think that by the time you got to a *5th* generation product, you could have fixed the scratching problems. My blackberry doesn’t scratch, and I beat the HELL out of it.

I know the IPOD is popular, but I actually RETURNED the IPOD I bought (I am a loyal mac user), and by choice do not have a portable music player at this time as I have yet to find anything that’s up to my standards. If there are others like me, there’s still a market waiting to be tapped.

mark

Sergio,
I don’t think you need to worry about “proprietary batteries for ipods”, to start, dozens of web sites have iPod replacement batteries for sale for as cheap as 10 bucks. Just do a Google search for them. And if you don’t trust a third party battery then go to apple and they’ll do the job for 60-70 bucks (most of the cheap sites just give you the replacement tools and battery, Apple does the manual labor too). I like my iPod and would hate to see the Windows DRM destroy the entire MP3 market.
As far as competition goes I’ve heard chat about XMs MP3 player which is compatible with its satellite service. But I’ve never been interested in paying a monthly bill for radio service and its also Windows only DRM.
Mark

Tom Lowe

Apple had the first personal computer in widespread use. Then came the Apple ///. Then came the IBM PC, which walked all over Apple, even after Apple introduced the Macintosh.

The decisive factor was IBM. It was the leader in the computer field and was known for its first-class support. IBM was computers. Of course, what people didn’t realize was that its reputation for leadership and support was acquired manufacturing and maintaining mainframes. Its PC quality and support were at best mediocre. The Computerland dealer in our town told me that half of the first shipment of PCs were dead on arrival, but people still went crazy and drooled over those grey boxes that weren’t near as fast or sophisticated as the 8-bit Apple ///.

The same thing happened with Windows. People who had been struggling with MS-DOS for years sincerely thought Windows 3.1 was the second coming and Windows 95, well, that was the rapture. It was emotional, not rational. Macs were always cheaper to own and worked better than DOS or Windows machines, but nobody ever got fired for buying IBM and later Microsoft. I might also mention that the reliability of the Macs meant far fewer consultants and maintenance personnel were required, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the consulting folks.

The iPod is in a similar but not identical position. It does not have the bedrock emotional support of the corporate IT types that has kept the MS in the top position and justified the large corporate IT staffs necessary to feed the MS beast. It depends on a relatively fickle market.

Still, the overwhelming market dominance and the emotional attachment of most folks to their iPods means that they will not jump to a competitor’s product without considerable justification. It works well with little or no hassle. I would like to see a wireless or bluetooth link to iTunes to eliminate the cable. The only flaw I can think of is that when I turn it off it occasionally forgets where I stopped in the middle of an ebook and forces me to search for the spot while driving down the road. Overall, it’s a first-class product.

Gareth Potter

Sony is the only company that could theoretically pull it off – they are the only company big enough to manage that sort of lengthy ad campaign. With the PSP, they have demonstrated that they can advertise well.

But I don’t think they will. Sony have consistently demonstrated that they do not “get it”. It has taken them years to release a music player that plays MP3s without requiring prior conversion to ATRAC. Players that they have produced have had appalling, fiddly user interfaces, and that’s to say nothing of the software on the computer. As some of you will doubtless be aware, Sony cannot make software. At all.

So it won’t be Sony. And, given now that Apple have the whole car integration thing going, any company that wants to pull it off will have to use the Dock connector. I think people underestimate how significant the Dock-connector-in-cars thing actually is – it makes the iPod the standard for digital audio players (or, should Apple ever choose to go down that route, Apple-licensed ones).

Without wishing to be complacent in the manner you describe, I think it will take a lot – an awful lot – to dislodge Apple from their dominant position now.

Eli James

I have an iPod, and yes, i do agree with some of the points in the post. The early success of the iPod was due in part with Apple’s reputation of cool and the loyal mac fanbase (arguably, of course, the fanbase increased tremendously with the iPod).

But how much more innovation can they squeeze out of it? An iPod camera? An iPod pod that you embed under your skin?

There’s always the risk that they cram too many features into it and tick of consumers (europe, anyone?) who rather have multiple gadgets than cram everything into one device.

But all the requirements for an iPod killer are good and true. Perhaps the single biggest attraction, one that Jobs is billing, is the seamless integration between music store, software and iPod. And somehow i don’t see competitors coming up with that sort of integration, simply because they don’t control everything like Apple does.

Good article overall. I liked it.

Ryan

Wow everyone loves me! :p

walter: I must say I DO love the latest and the greatest! At least within spending distance. For instance, my brand new 20″ Cinema display, it’s awesome, sure I could have gotten something for 400bucks… But it’s so nice!

Where my point REALLY comes in is that if they had tried to sell me this 20″ lcd with speakers and a cellphone built in, a mini lcd telling me the temperature in the room/outside/in cupertino, a wifi signal booster, some sort of candy dispenser or something, etc… THEN i would have resisted like mad :P What if I want to upgrade my candy dispenser!?!?!

THEN WHAT!?

walter

I’m with Ryan…. I don’t need some freaky do-it-all gadget. I use a cheap cell phone that i got for free. no bells and whistles. I us pay/talk. cost: 20 a month max. It just phones. DUH!. I have an older iPod which i got cheap. plays my music. keeps my contacts. has my data on the HD part. DUH! Keep it simple and cheap. Resist the latest …

jbelkin

Basically – someone would have to come up with an easy to use process (right now, ONE CLICK buys and tranfers a song from the store to your ipod – um, good luck topping that one).

The only opening would be if someone could combine a giant jukebox with a scanner – scan in your CD’s and this jukebox auto loads your “non-ipod” player with your tracks – no need to rip anything – other than that, right now, nothing on the horizon.

http://metroxing.blogspot.com/2006/01/ipod-anthropology.html

doug

I think you set the bar higher than it needs to be. Yes the iPod is marketed well and anyone who wants to take the crown would need to do as good of a job. Yes it has become a social icon but that is just because it really is cool. Consumers will jump on the next cool thing just as quickly. It doesn’t have to play anything beyond the basics (MP3, AAC and more than likely WMA with DRM). Just stick with standards and it should be fine. I have no idea why you would think the company would need to be known for electronics and music (Apple was not) but obviously you think Sony is the company to take the iPod down. Also, a product obviously does not need to be overly rugged to make it in the MP3 market (the nano proved that) as long as it is cool enough.

The real problem for these companies is they are shooting at a target that is constantly moving. Apple set the standard with the mini and as everyone was trying to match and one up it, but by the time they got to market Apple had killed the mini and moved on to the Nano. Now as everyone is setting their sites on the nano and the new iPod, Apple is getting ready to kill both of those products with something even cooler. If Sony wants to win this game they need to anticipate where Apple is going next and one up them before they deliver their product so that the iPod can look like it is trying to play catch up for once.

I’m sure it could happen but I wouldn’t bet against Apple yet.

Eric

I agree with Ryan. I like devices for different jobs. Sure, a phone with a good camera is a good combination, but a phone with web browser and camera and music sucks etc. etc. etc.

There is a lot of talk about advertising going to be popping up in iTunes in future. No thanks. If that happens I will write a blocker and offer it free to all who like their devices because they do what they want – without being advertised at. I think it would be a mistake and would allow for improved competition. One of the great things about iTunes is that it works without annoyance. Keep the advertising on the iTMS, sure. But not in my iTunes client.

Ryan

“…why someone would still get an ipod if…”

I don’t know about everyone else but I can say that for myself I would never be especially interested in combining devices like this. I have my laptop, I have my iPod, I have my cellphone, I have various other little gadgets…

If my iPod breaks I get it repaired, yet I can still make phone calls. If my phone breaks at least I still have music… and so on. This also applies to upgrades. “Oh man I need to store more music on this thing!”… instead ofgetting the newest gen iPod you end up spending a freaking fortune on a new musicplayer/phone/internet browser/email/calculator/whatever device. No thanks.

This whole movement of people seemingly obsessed with having EVERYTHING in one (it’ll perform various sexual favors too!!! WOW!) is pretty pointless. My iPod and my Cellphone together are negligibly heavy and are no hinderance in terms of convenience. Having one less device in my pocket means nothing to me, especially when the iPod is so nice to use and etc etc etc, a million reasons why people already have them.

In short, I’m sure others will ( / do ) appreciate having music on their cellphones, but I, for one, am not interested in the least.

Sergio

Well, I am one of the last human beings who does not have an ipod. From time to time I look at my MP3 collection and wonder how this is possible, which make me sort of jealous of ipod users.

Then, reality bites back. I do not accept the whole idea of proprietary batteries for ipods. Also, to pay extra bucks for having radio is not very appealing.

Regarding your post, I believe there is only one way to destroy the ipod supremacy in the short-medium term : Celular phones are getting real killers (check all N series from Mokia) but they still lack some of your must-have points. If they work their interfaces, why someone would still get an ipod if their cels could not only play music but much more ? It is not a matter of style or fashion but simply being cheapo. There is no doubt that even Apple would like to have their own
cel service and they surely are working on this right now.

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