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iPod: A sheep in sheep’s clothing

By SoupIsGood Food, (soup@macedition.com), October 29, 2001

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As MP3 players go, the iPod’s really a “best of breed” device. Not the largest capacity portable MP3 player on the market, but the FireWire interface, portable storage features, battery life, compact size and (admit it!) swank styling can command a premium. It’s also nice to see Apple going with a broadly adopted industry standard, instead of concocting harebrained “content protection” systems “like a certain other desktop OS vendor is.” MP3s are simple, straightforward and ready to roll in the here and now.

The iPod’s not a “revolutionary new product” so much as it is an Apple-branded peripheral, as the old LaserWriter and StyleWriter printers were, and a value-add with fat profit margins when you go looking for a new Mac. Once upon a time, Apple made mad money with peripheral sales. But at $399, the iPod’s a little too pricey to make the kind of market penetration and big profits Apple’s hoping for.

I’m also dubious about its prospects with non-Mac users. The Linux guys will probably have it hacked to work with your choice of open source OSes, in Gnome, KDE and command line utilities, all of a half day after it hits the shelves, but they’ll find other (stupid) reasons to sneer at it: Too pricey! Not enough disk space! No USB! Apple SuXXorz! Whatever – it’s still best-of-breed, and they’re just jealous it doesn’t have a penguin etched on it somewhere.

The demand for this thing in the Windows world is very much in question. While Apple may one day get around to finding a way for the 90 percent of the world without a Mac to use it, PC users tend to go for the cheapest and biggest – best can be damned. They won’t pay the premium. They won’t have the iTunes integration incentive, or even FireWire ports. And to be frank, they still use floppies to sneakernet their data. In the end, the iPod’s just an MP3 player, and there are a ton of players in that space.

While a damn fine piece of hardware, the iPod would have been revolutionary two years ago. These days, you can snag MP3 players in every consumer electronics chain and computer superstore in the civilized world for a song. What’s worse, those MP3 players (Apple’s shiny new example of the breed included) are about to become as obsolete as dot-matrix printers. It’s all about integration.

It used to be cool to have a zillion little gadgets tucked about your body: mobile phone, pager, text messenger, GPS, PDA, MP3 player, portable fax printer, salt and pepper shakers, the works. Each one had its own little pouch or belt clip, and you could strut about the office like you were Luke Skywalker. Those halcyon days are gone. In these economically troubled and style-conscious times, you cannot afford to continuously upgrade all of your technotoys to the latest and greatest, or even replace them when you lose them in the couch. Your snazzy mobile phone, text messenger, PDA and MP3 player can cost you more than a new iBook when tallied up, and clipping all of them to your belt brands you as a hopeless geek.

Enter Handspring, who offered a PDA with a “Springboard” expansion port. Then arrived the GPS springboard, the MP3 player springboard, the cell phone springboard, and PocketPC devices like the iPaq and the Journada quickly followed suit with their own Compact Flash-enabled devices, and Palm’s now on the bandwagon with the tiniest peripherals of the bunch. Smart, expandable PDAs were last year’s trend.

This year, things have been stepped up a notch. PDA manufacturers are getting into the mobile phone game. Mobile phone services, in this day and age, also capably integrate pager and answering machine, but while they have long had text messaging, PDA-like features and “Web access,” the implementation has, frankly, sucked. Connected PDAs on the other hand, while in no way a replacement for a personal computer, do offer a better way to get at your IMAP/POP e-mail and Web-based groupware than the tiny phone screen. Handspring is introducing a compact PDA that is also a cell phone, with networking capabilities rolled in from the get-go. No expansion cards to lose or break; it’s all built in. They even offer a model with a “thumb keyboard,” like the Blackberry’s, for quick and easy text messaging. Palm’s got a mobile phone/PDA combo in the works, too.

These gizmos are inherently limited because the Palm OS platform doesn’t have enough horsepower. If you want to play MP3s, you have to buy an MP3 player module. This is essentially a RISC processor and RAM that talks to your PDA, letting you use the familiar PDA interface to organize and play your music … a tiny computer hooked up to your tiny computer! Not the best way of doing things, but it does offer some size, price and interface advantages over purely standalone MP3 players (like Apple’s).

The next step is to beef up the PDAs to where they can play MP3s on their own in glorious 16-bit stereo. This is already in the works, with powerful (but awkward) PocketPC PDAs already there. The next generation Palm devices will run on powerful-but-tiny ARM chips, with a multimedia-driven OS and the usual Palm OS panache. This won’t just let the new generation PDA phones play MP3s but record them as well, and play video files to boot.

So while Apple has a spiffy new MP3 player that is arguably the best on the market (And at $399, priced accordingly – ouch!), the industry is moving beyond MP3 players and into integrated devices. Pocket-sized PDA/mobile phone/portable Internet appliance/multimedia and MP3 player/pager/text messenger/video game player gizmos are gonna be huge, and Apple’s going to be stuck flogging last year’s peripheral revolution against tomorrow’s much more capable and comparably priced devices.

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