Thursday, July 14, 2005

The end of the Ipod era

Sony invented the concept: carry your music with you and listen on headphones. The breakthrough concept was a simple device: portable, personal stereo. Rio and others took it to the Internet era, with portable MP3 players. But Apple stole the show with the Ipod, and the Ipod Mini. Apple is enjoying record revenues, thanks largely to the Ipod.

But those days will end.

Everyone I know who has an Ipod loves it to pieces. My wife played DJ on a road trip this weekend, using a gizmo that attaches to the Ipod Mini and broadcasts low-power FM to your car stereo. It didn't work quite as well as I expected; I'd say it was about Dolby cassette quality.

Still, even if the quality wasn't quite up to snuff, when you think about the raison d'etre of the Ipod -- carrying your entire music collection in a tiny package -- it's a pretty compelling phenomenon. When you get to west Meechigan the radio pickings get pretty slim, and it's really nice to have the music you like at your beck and call.

I think the Ipod Mini is one of the best engineered electronic devices ever -- highly functional, highly portable, sleek user interface. When I was in Toronto recently, I noticed a lot of folks listening to Minis. (Interestingly, I observed males with a variety of audio devices, but every female listening to music was using a Mini.) Apple hit a huge home run with the Ipod -- and especially with the Mini.

That said, I predict it will be totally obsolete within a year.

I think the form factor that will prevail will be that of the Ipod Shuffle. It will not have a hard drive, and it will be the size of a USB flash drive. In fact there are already USB flash drives on the market that double as MP3 players. Flash memory capacities are climbing as fast as prices are falling. Within a year or so, we'll have 2 or 4 gig flash drives at low prices.

Sony has a device that's close, but no cigar. It's the Sony NW-E507 Network Walkman 1 GB Digital Music Player with FM Tuner. You can see how tiny this puppy is -- just like a USB thumb drive. Unlike the crippled Shuffle design, it has an Organic Electroluminescence Display so you can choose what to play. Reviewers praise its sleek design. It plays more formats than the Ipod does. And it has an amazing battery technology: a three minute charge gives you three hours of playback time.

You've got to believe that whoever engineered the Walkman is apoplectic over the Ipod phenomenon. Sony invented the friggin' concept, and in the Internet era, Apple, of all people, expropriates it.

And yet, in reaction, even the mighty Sony can't slay the Ipod. Sony, which is famous for fabulous engineering that includes a fabulous gaffe, didn't make it work like a USB flash drive. You can't just plug it into your USB port. You've got to haul a Sony mini-USB adapter cable around with you. Why, Sony, why?

Sometime within the next several months, Sony, or one of its competitors, will get their act together. They'll come out with a device that does all that the Ipod does, and all that the NW-E507 does, and it'll plug straight into a USB port. They'll offer software that's at least as functional as Itunes, only open to more than one music store.

And then, the Ipod bubble will burst.

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