• The iPod: When Will the Train Slow Down?

    April 16th, 2005

    To tell you the truth, sometimes I prefer to simply ignore the latest round of speculation about possible iPod killers. Wall Street, of course, can’t stop worrying. When Sony introduced a new line of music players a while back, Apple’s stock went down. Surely Sony would make a dent in the iPod’s dominance, right?

    Napster To Go also seems to be growing faster than expected, but there’s no indication that it is hurting the iTunes Music Store. Well, at least not yet, though I suppose Apple’s quarterly conference with financial analysts about its earnings report, due tomorrow afternoon, will provide a little more illumination on the subject.

    The latest scheme to stop the iPod in its tracks is a cell phone. Yes, some day soon, we will use our phones to listen to our music library. Now you probably know that future Motorola cell phones will feature iTunes and access to the music store, but it won’t be an iPod replacement. For one thing, a phone of this sort will only contain, at best, a few dozen tracks. What about hard drives, you say? Yes, they are coming, but if you ever got an up close and personal look at the hard drive of today’s iPod, even the mini, you’d see that there isn’t quite enough room to stuff that component into a cell phone and leave room for the rest of the circuitry. Flash memory? Well, that’ll work, I suppose, though a phone with all that stuff will cost a lot more than an iPod shuffle, even if you count the special prices the cell phone services offer on their gear for new subscribers.

    Despite the complications, it hasn’t stopped the speculation from Wall Street that the iPod may soon be yesterday’s news. So Apple’s stock has taken a bit of a beating in recent days, just as the price fully recovered from the last round of speculation about products that’ll supplant the iPod.

    Sure it’ll happen some day. The public is fickle when it comes to lifestyle products, and I’m really surprised the iPod has done so well and has stayed ahead of the pack for so long. So is the end at hand or will Apple ride the fad to even greater heights? I suppose Apple’s financial people might clarify this, but don’t forget that those same financial people told us last fall that there wouldn’t be a Mac selling for less than $500. And we all know what happened there, because while those words were spoken, the company’s product people were putting the final touches on the Mac mini.

    Well, maybe the statement was made to fool the competition. Or maybe the financial people are so busy looking at raw numbers that they can’t see the forest from the trees. I’ll take the former, frankly. A little misdirection never hurts, although I suppose it’s possible that the decision to actually go ahead and release the mini may not have come until later in the year.

    There is, of course, another factor that would affect the iPod’s continued success, and that’s market saturation. How many of you actually want a personal music player in the first place, and what percentage of the potential market will choose iPods?

    It’s fair to say that there are many people out there who are poor candidates for the iPod, simply because they have never grown accustomed to walking around with earphones hiding them from the rest of the world. Sometimes I wonder if I fit into this category. Let me tell you a story: Back in the late 1980s, I bought one of the early portable CD players. I took it to work every day, and filled my ears with music as often as I could, except when my employers expected me to concentrate on getting some real work done.

    Alas, the thrill was gone after a few months. I decided that I really didn’t feel comfortable shutting myself off from the rest of the world, which probably means I would not be interested in, say, the Bose QuietComfort earphones. That’s an earphone that uses special noise canceling circuitry to reduce or eliminate ambient noise, and I suppose it’s great for an airplane, unless you take comfort in knowing that the engines are droning away without interruption.

    Maybe it’s claustrophobia. Yes, that’s it. I suppose there are pills or behavior modification techniques I could try to help me overcome my fears of living my life in an earphone-induced bubble.

    The real point of this silliness is the fact that there are indeed lots of people who don’t want to spend extended periods of time listening to music or talking books by way of a set of earphones. This isn’t to say they won’t buy iPods, but they’d probably just attach them to regular stereos, so they can listen to their favorite tunes for hours without having to swap CDs. I notice, for example, that even the self-contained Bose Wave music system, which has a slot-load CD player, includes a jack so you can connect another component to it, and the iPod surely comes to mind.

    I won’t attempt, though, to estimate how many of you fit into the anti-earphone category. For now, Apple is milking the iPod phenomenon for all it’s worth, and is no doubt busy building improved models, or perhaps its eventual successor. And let me make it perfectly clear that, whether it happens this year or the next, the era of the iPod will some day come to an end. Just ask Sony.

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