Obviously the iPod is dead

September 20, 2004

This entry is a spinoff of another post I never got around to finishing. That post was about Apple's current stranglehold on the mobile music market and what they're going to have to do if they want to continue to dominate. Essentially, my argument was that Apple needed to start offering devices that could do more than just play music. If Steve Jobs thinks he can fight off the rest of the world with just music, he's sadly mistaken — devices want to converge.

This segues nicely into what I'd like to talk about: the iPod as a mobile phone. At first glance, this might seem a little strange, but turn the logic around (i.e., the mobile phone as a music player) and it might not seem as far off. In fact, it isn't "off" at all — a lot of the new mobile phones are capable of playing various audio formats, including MP3 (like my new Nokia 7610, and my SE K700i before that, and...). Why wouldn't one want to consolidate the two devices? I'm obviously the wrong person to pose this question to because I'm that guy who absolutely can't wait for my mobile phone (or whatever this all-in-one device will finally be called) to "contain" and "control" my life. That said, I can't imagine a typical end-user who wouldn't want to, at the very least, merge their portable music player with their mobile phone.

There are a few kinks in this chain to be sure, but nothing that can't and won't be resolved. The biggest hangup with moving music to a mobile phone is storage space. Currently the best mobile smartphones ship with 64MB or less of internal memory, though many of them also offer memory expansion in the form of various flash media. While the cost of solid-state media continues to fall, the reality is that it will take nothing less than hard drives to achieve the type of storage required for our music collections (solid-state drives will eventually rule this space, but we're talking years). It should come as no surprise that this hurdle has already been cleared and mobile phones with HDDs are already upon us. Though there are serious issues related to hard drives in mobile phones, namely shock-resistance and the tradeoff between spinning platters and battery life, these issues are being taken care of and will soon be non-existent (hell, you need look no further than the iPod itself or Sony's Network Walkman Digital Music Player to get a sense of how long a battery can be made to last and how durable such a device can be). Furthermore, these devices will be rather expensive (the Samsung linked to above will be $800) and I think it goes without saying that they will be treated with care (like most iPods now).

So, here's the deal Apple, if you'd like to keep your competition down and sales of the iPod up, add a GSM or CDMA antenna to the music player and let it ride. I would be the first in line for such a device (shocking, I know) and I imagine that there would be a lot of people behind me.

As soon as smartphones start adding 1" and .85" drive bays, it's not going to take long for end-users to realize that their two or three devices can be made into one, and there is no turning back when that happens. As good as the iPod interface is, and as pretty as the design can get, it's not going to be able to compete with mass storage on a mobile phone.

Surely Apple is aware of the power they could wield if they came out with a mobile phone capable of playing music and has probably been contemplating such a device for a while now. There is some evidence available that leads one to believe that Apple is cognizant of what the future is going to require, most notably the recent deal struck between Apple and Motorola that will allow users to play iTunes AAC (FairPlay DRM) files on some Motorola phones. While this approach seems to belie the iTunes Music Store's end-goal of selling more iPods, it could be working to do just that in the long run if the iPod is no longer just a music player. It's well known that iTMS barely turns a profit and that the money, in this case, is in the device (and not the content... yet). Given this information, it's quite possible that Apple is simply going to 'tease' the public for a while by allowing its files to be played on certain mobile phones. Then, and after the public is convinced that they need their iTMS music on their mobile phone, Apple will announce the 'iPhone.'

I realize that this might sound odd, but quite frankly, there is no other option for Apple. You can't convince me that consumers are going to buy a mobile phone based on whether it can play iTMS files as the Apple-Motorola agreement might have you believe. Nor can you convince me that Apple would be content with simply licensing its DRM technology to every mobile phone manufacturer and banking on iTMS sales. Apple needs to continue selling iPods to stay competitive in the digital music space and to continue selling iPods it is going to have to morph it into a more robust device.

If history is any indication, Microsoft's format will ultimately be king and Apple will be left to fight for a share of the 10% of people that stay away from Microsoft as a rule. With that knowledge as a backdrop and the realization that Windows Mobile (Microsoft's smartphone/PDA OS) is on a rapidly increasing number of smartphones, that Microsoft's music format is competing directly with Apple's, and that HDDs will soon be in mobile phones, one arrives at the logical conclusion that the iPod, as we have come to know it, is dead.

I'm not saying that Apple needs to create a full-fledged mobile platform to compete with Windows Mobile (oh, just imagine an OS X-based mobile phone though), but I am saying that they need a device capable of more than just playing music. It's going to be hard to persuade Joe Public that he needs an iPod after Sprint offers him a Windows Mobile device with a 5GB hard drive and tells him that it can play WMA and MP3 files (in addition to being a, for lack of a better term, "pocket pc").

While most everything I've brought up can be done today, Joe Public either doesn't know about it or can't afford it, and so Apple has a window, albeit a small one, to produce something before the cat's out of the bag and service providers start offering these über-devices for $50 with a two-year service contract.

The quick and dirty solution for Apple would be to use the Palm or Symbian operating system to power a phone-capable device and bundle it with an iPod application that would emulate the Pixo interface (to satisfy those who've come to know and love the iPod user experience). While it's anyone's guess as to what Apple will ultimately come up with, I do hope they come up with something — the opportunity is huge — forget music and think 'life.'

The incredibly satisfying part about all of this is that it doesn't really affect me, at least not negatively. As soon as mobile phones with HDDs become affordable, I'll have one. I couldn't care less what proprietary audio formats it can decode because I don't use, nor will I ever if I can help it, any of them. All I'll require is that it be able to play the open, ubiquitous MP3 format — a very safe bet. Notwithstanding the fact that I'm unaffected either way, I, more than just about anyone, welcome and encourage an Apple mobile phone — let's hope they realize what's at stake here and produce accordingly.

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