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  • 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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