Gigabeat Apple At Their Own Game

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I don’t buy the argument the the iPod – iTunes packages own the digital market due to the wonderful convenience of the iTunes store. Yes iTunes is one of the major reasons for the iPod’s success. The same is not necessarily true of the iTunes store, at least not in Europe, where the store didn’t even open for a full year after the US version, long after iPod units began flying off the shelves in 2002.

Frankly, I don’t know anyone who buys music from the iTunes store, even now – perhaps because it’s far less common for Irish students to have credit cards, than their American contemporaries. Using the iTunes store has never made sense from a behavioral economics perspective; as purchasing a CD through Amazon or Cd Wow is just as easy, cheaper, and provides access to the original media to rip, mix, burn as much as desired. More importantly for students, CD’s (and Mp3’s) are much easier to share and borrow. 200 million songs sold in two years might seem like a lot, but it’s still a drop in the ocean next to the tracks purchased on CD and traded on file sharing networks.

The iTunes software is on the other hand, ubiquitously used to rip and burn CD’s, manage Mp3 / M4a collections, and most importantly to sync iPods. It’s this – the convenience and usability of the iTunes – iPod combination, that has given Apple such a lead. Hell, the store is a loss leader. Would this integration be so difficult to mimic?

How To Make A Real iPod Killer

Take a deep breath Toshiba, Creative, Archos, I’m about to describe how to become a real player in the portable media arena. All of this stuff has seemed blindingly obvious since the creative Nomad hit the streets, but apparently you’re not getting it.

1. Set a team of coders to fork, rebrand and make Windows compatible the Open Source (currently Linux only) media player Amarok. Amarok includes all of iTunes’ functionality and more, in an already easy to use and stable package.

2. By doing 1, you’ll harness the goodwill of the open source community, tech geeks and the blogging community; gaining the sort of free advertising and community support any company should dream of. More importantly, it will allow you to easily build in Firefox like extension support, something iTunes currently lacks (beyond limited, Mac only, Apple Scripts), limitlessly extending your players potential functionality.

3. Add, and heavily promote, better Podcasting support. Get Podcasters on board by promoting the indies rather than network tie ins, and build the functionality to painlessly sync with your software and device. Build support for cutting edge technologies like comment casting, and podcasting direct from the device via WiFi – finally providing a use for your devices built in microphone. Apple’s efforts in this area are the tip of iceberg of whats possible.

4. Establish ‘one click’ style relationships with Emusic (the second largest audio file retailer in the world after Apple), and smaller DRM free labels like Magnatune. By setting up relations with DRM free music stores you’ll establish substantial non-infringing uses for your device, which will protect you, at least in part, from the DMCA and the legal arms of the recording and film industries. Additionally, build support for data aggregation based suggestion streaming services like Last.fm and Pandora into your software, and directly into your player – this is an area that will explode as they become further integrated into mainstream social networking sites. You’ll build community around recommendations, and through canny deals, should be able to leverage a proportion of the referral cash such services no doubt receive from Amazon and the like.

5. Forgo upselling – make your new music player (which will have to be open source anyway) free of crappy attempts to sell your other products and other ‘branding exercises’. The player is the product, if it’s good enough the extras (in Apple’s case even whole computers) will sell themselves.

6. Release your hardware Mp3 & Movie player with a processor fast enough to scroll through media quickly (vitally important), but cool enough to fit into a form factor comparable to the next generation of iPod’s, which are predicted use smaller hard drives and have bigger screens. Include support for open source and commonly used compression codecs (and high resolutions, although HD is a bonus you can reserve for your devices second or third iterations if necessary) – e.g.: Ogg, Dirac, Mp3, Xvid, Divx. No need to reinvent the wheel, and no need to worry about DRM, see above re: podcasting support and fair use.

7. Include an intuitive interface, and as large a screen as possible – steal right, left, and center all the speculative ideas which have been suggested for a touch screen iPod (be wary of directly violating Apple patents). Take a leaf from Apple’s book, hire a design guru, someone with a deep understanding of usability and a original flair for design – I’d suggest Art Lebedev – and allow them the freedom to build an interface that makes the additional functionality you’re going to have over Apple, just work. Oh and let them mastermind the advertising too. Think of your lead designer as an interface auteur.

7. Include Zune style WiFi. Hint: This time allow DRM free sharing, and allow upload and download to the device from PC via WiFi. The tech is out there, both Archos and Toshiba already have products with similar functionality. Build in local streaming so users can man their own radio stations, complete with meta information, which will save a list of ‘recently overheard tracks’ on listeners players.

8. Test and refine your product. While Apple can get away with producing a device that dies after a year of heavy use, disconnects its battery cable after a fall and cracks if sat upon, you cannot. Make the hardware bullet proof. Back when I used to work in retail, I was constantly amazed by the low build quality of some devices we sold. Companies like LG and creative would bring to market fantastic little machines, which would come back in such numbers that they must have actually lost money, never mind good will and reputation.

Now, go eat up the market.

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4 thoughts on “Gigabeat Apple At Their Own Game

  1. Hello!
    You are nothing more than an open source fanatic and fanboy. And you consider yourself a bit too important.

    Take a deep breath Toshiba, Creative, Archos, I’m about to describe how to become a real player in the portable media arena.

    Yeah, sure! Should they now pay you royalties for coming up with such brilliant ideas! LOL!
    Would you mind not posting such crap in future, please!

  2. Easy to say…

    This all seems pretty obvious. So why don’t they do it? Why can’t they do it?

    Do you think that by the time you got to be in a position to make decisions like this you would still be as in touch with what the market needed?

  3. @ Rowan

    – I don’t work for a multinational corp, but I can venture a couple of guesses about why they don’t or can’t come up with a product like this.

    1) Underestimation of the impact of community support – although I hope Firefox is changing this.

    2) Fear of the recording industry. Without being a lawyer I can’t estimate how warranted this is.

    3) Desire for a piece of the (rapidly disappearing) music sales pie.

    4) Lack of user interface design skill. The companies that offer the most feature rich designs (traditionally Archos), seem to offer the worst user interface and out of box experience. This is where Apple have traditionally excelled, and I would attribute much of the success of the iPod (despite its obvious failings) to the simplicity and ‘slickness’ of thee device, and its peerless software integration.

    5) It’s obvious to you or I, but perhaps the companies producing these devices have different strategies – take over the living room, rip off the iPod in a cheaper device, make an integrated do everything device.

    In terms of getting into a position to influence such decisions – getting away from myself (I’ve no desire to work in the creativity crushing confines of a mega corp, and no management ability to speak of) – I don’t think it’s impossible to retain a user focused sensibility. Looking at the development of the Xbox over at Microsoft, they seem to have produced a product which leveraged what developers were screaming for (XNA – speed and ease of development for mammoth next gen products), and provided users with a useful service they didn’t necessarily realise they wanted (X-Box Live, gamer tag rankings etc).

    The difficulty would be convincing senior management to take such risks, and ignoring the focus group mentality in favor of intense Jakob Neilsen like usability testing, and an understanding that edge features which open the device to new uses will drive adoption.

  4. @ Cool and Casual.

    I’m far from an open source fanatic, in fact I view open source as having many problems related to innovation and usability – especially in the desktop space, where Linux is currently poised to do nothing more than confuse and disappoint casual users.

    Open source development seems to work best when a small group of developers (or a corporate entity) lead or champion development around a goal focused target – Apache, Firefox, Linux kernal, XLG; and is worst at many of the things I’ve suggested are important – user interface design, feature innovation etc. This is why I’m recommending a corporation create the device suggested above, rather than a cooperative.

    If you’d like to point out the flaws you’re finding in my ideas, please go ahead, debate is an excellent way of improving them.

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