Why the iPod is Not a Walkman

April 30th, 2008

Whenever an analyst wants to write something without thinking, it’s easy to pontificate on such silliness as the alleged resemblance of the iPod to the Sony Walkman. Both gained iconic status, but the latter was eventually largely supplanted by me-too products that were cheaper and offered identical or additional features.

And let’s not forget the famous IBM PC, where the clone makers took the market from under them.

So wouldn’t it seem logical that Apple’s days in the sun will ultimately come to a close in the same fashion? Well, at least that has been the theory every time a potential iPod killer is discovered. The only thing is that the imitator usually self-destructs, or simply fades into near-irrelevance.

One example was the Microsoft Zune, a music player that was almost as good, but merely imitated an older iPod rather than a recent model. Microsoft simply followed the pattern. So what went wrong?

Well, when it came to the Walkman, Sony didn’t have a lock on cassette player technology, an industry standard, nor on tiny radio receivers. They didn’t offer anything that you couldn’t get elsewhere, and merely succeeded in coming up with a repackaging scheme that was easily imitated and excelled by other electronics companies.

When it came to the IBM PC, again, it offered nothing unique that you couldn’t put together yourself from spare parts. All you needed was a copy of Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system, itself a clone of the older C/PM command-line system ubiquitous in the 1970s. So all the clone makers had to do was to buy their operating systems from Microsoft — well you know what happened then.

With the iPod, you can perhaps duplicate the raw components, since they are also mostly available from a number of suppliers. Within certain limits, you can duplicate the case design, but you can’t imitate such patented features as the unique scroll wheel design or the user interface, and that’s where the pedal meets the metal, as the race drivers say.

By vertically integrating its products and supplying the entire widget, Apple gains a huge advantage over its competition, which mostly attempts to trump the iPod by adding bullet points to a PowerPoint presentation and pronouncing their products superior.

Sure, Microsoft tried to do something similar to Apple with the Zune, after its PlaysForSure initiative failed in the marketplace big time. They also double-crossed a number of their partners, but that’s nothing new for Microsoft.

However, Microsoft’s design-by-committee approach was unable to match the seamless integration of the iPod. Worse, the market for regular digital music players appears to be saturated now. Apple still retains a huge lead in market share, but sales are flattening, even though the average sale price increased somewhat from last year. I suppose you can attribute that to the popularity of the iPod touch.

So it does appear that many of Apple’s new sales may indeed be to people who already have iPods. Maybe they just lust after the new model, or the older one has seen better days. Regardless, Apple has realized it’s time to move on to the next great thing, which may be the Wi-Fi mobile platform they’re touting, of which the iPod touch is just the first entry.

But just what does this vision mean, other than market-speak?

Well, you can look at the iPhone as a prime example, even if Apple puts this hot-selling gadget into a separate category than the iPod touch. In fact, the only significant difference between the two is, of course, the phone. As you know, both use a version of Mac OS X customized to allow you to respond to a touch-based user interface.

Although full integration between a cell phone, a handheld computer and a music player has been tried by others, Apple’s first entry into this space has been almost universally regarded as a home run.

In late June, if all goes according to plan, the iPhone 2.0 software update will include enterprise-level features and the ability to run authorized third-party apps downloaded from Apple’s own unique App Store sales environment.

Yes, there is third-party software available for other so-called smartphones, but just how successful have those products been? Are there any killer apps for, say, the BlackBerry? I’m just asking.

So on the one hand, the media player of yesterday has morphed into a full-fledged handheld computer with or without an integrated wireless phone. On the other hand, if you only want music, a cheap iPod shuffle or a nano will provide all the features you really need. The iPod classic is nearing the end of the hard drive-based music player era, and only awaits the arrival of larger capacity Flash memory at comparable prices before it disappears.

However, the rest of the industry is probably still trying to figure out how to match what Apple’s doing now, without understanding what to do for encore. As for the iPhone’s biggest competitor, the BlackBerry, the manufacturer, RIM, is now, according to one published report, considering whether to port its email software to the iPhone. Well, if you can’t beat them…

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4 Responses to “Why the iPod is Not a Walkman”

  1. Steven Axtell says:

    Well done Gene! I like your last line especially. I wonder how much longer it will be before others “join ’em” like RIM.

    Keep up the great work.

    Andover, Kansas

  2. Bluejade says:

    Great analysis as usually ( I am your regular reader and avid podcast listener )
    While I agree with your arguing, I just wanted to pint out, there is actually more difference between an iPod Touch and iPhone than just the phone part – the iPod Touch doesn’t have a microphone, a speaker and a camera. I have installed many applications on my unlocked iPhone which would be quite crippled or unable to work on the iPod Touch due to the missing hardware. There are many great multimedia and fun apps for iPhone ( voice recorder, musical instruments, guitar tuner, games …) available that you can’t use on iPod Touch.

  3. Constable Odo says:

    Many BlackBerry users consider GTalk, GMaps and something called JiveTalk to be the killer apps for the BlackBerry. I don’t think BlackBerry users are interested in much of anything except push e-mail. They’re probably not into video and music and maybe they only play very simple games on their BBs. That’s cool. I doubt if they care what the rest of the smartphone world is doing.

    Apple iPhone users are probably more diverse since the iPhone is supposed to be the mobile answer to everything. Video, music, gaming, internet browsing, etc. First and foremost an iPhone is an expensive music and video playing iPod that happens to make and receive phone calls. BB users buy BBs to make and receive text messages. iPhone and BlackBerry users are completely different in what they want from a smartphone. iPhone users don’t want keyboards, BB users can’t do without them.

    If an iPhone had access to the BES and a physical keyboard, that would quickly be the end of RIM selling BlackBerrys. But since that won’t happen, BlackBerrys will linger on for a couple of more years. There really isn’t anything else RIM can do to trump the Apple iPhone aside from push e-mail.

  4. Ian says:

    I think you might be oversimplifying the Walkman analogy a bit. “They didn’t offer anything that you couldn’t get elsewhere, and merely succeeded in coming up with a repackaging scheme that was easily imitated and excelled by other electronics companies”: Really? You might need to dig a little deeper into the history of portable cassette players…

    Sony packed a lot of engineering into Walkman units costing well over $150 (and that was a LOT of money in the 80s), and while there were other players in the high-end Walkman market, there weren’t many, because few had the resources available to pull off anything in the same class – notably Panasonic, Sanyo, and Aiwa. It took some serious engineering chops to pull off a cassette player the size of a cassette case, but Sony managed to do it (take a look at the WM-10, and countless models that followed), and those companies who wanted to compete on the same playing field as Sony found themselves tasked with considerably more work than simply raiding the parts bin for some lecture recorder guts and dressing it up in a pretty package – this was stuff that had to be designed from the ground up. For the most part, Sony ruled the roost, right up until the very end – whatever new feature they added had the other big boys in the industry scrambling to match it.

    So when you say it was easily imitated, perhaps you mean something along the lines of the sub-$50 generic cassette walkman clunkers that you could get at any drugstore or discount department store? Those absolutely could be and were made and marketed by everybody under the sun. And these have a modern equivalent – the $20 [insert brand name here] 1gb mp3 player available at all the same places you could find those cheap cassette players.

    As you point out, the iPod (certainly the Touch) is something more than an assemblage of things from the parts bin that plays music. So to are any number of Walkmen made by Sony (and Panasonic, Aiwa, and Sanyo) that are so much more than a $20 thing that came from the local Walgreens.

    The thing that toppled the Sony from the portable music throne wasn’t some other electronics company making a Walkman clone that was better and cheaper – it was the demise of the cassette itself (and Sony’s subsequent reluctance to truly embrace the emerging technology, which was precisely what Apple did very, very well with the iPod.

    I know that all this wasn’t really the point of your article – but I think offering up the Walkman as an example of failure (a la the IBM PC) is a mis-evaluation of the considerable dominance Sony held over the portable music player market from 1979 up through whenever it is we think cassettes became irrelevant 🙂

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