A WSJ article (“An iPod Casualty: The Rio Digital-Music Player, 9/1/05” – subscribers only) recently eulogized one of the pioneers of the flash memory mp3 players, Rio, which has just closed down, and mourned for the rest of the pack:
Rio isn’t alone in feeling the sting of Apple’s momentum. In August, Creative Technology reported lower-than-expected sales and a wider loss for the quarter ended in June, and said it was forced to write down the value of unsold inventory. About two-thirds of the Singapore-based company’s revenue comes from its line of Zen music players. Days later, Reigncom Co., the South Korean maker of iRiver players, sharply cut its sales and profit outlook for the rest of the year.
Rio introduced the first portable music player in 1998, three years before Apple introduced their iPod. But alas, Rio created just the player–not the entire constellation of player, music software (iTunes came out 10 months prior to the iPod), online music store (two years later), and legal songs. And Apple’s network has kept growing, with the addition of iPhoto, of Podcasting, and as folks like Cringely are predicting, video by Christmas. According to the WSJ, Apple has 46% of the flash memory player marke and, according to Forbes, 80% of the MP3 player market in total (not to mention 75% of the online music sales).
A century from now, as kids learn about the technological revolutions of the turn of this century, will anyone remember these products? or will they, like the first light bulbs, automobiles, penicillin, etc… get left out of the spotlight? A lot more valuable lessons for would be entrepreneurs and inventors come from these early and unsuccessful attempts than from just looking at the ones that make it. Like the importance of being in the right place at right time; like the value of elegant design (simplicity X functionality); and like the power of a network to overcome individual nodes.
What makes the triumph even more remarkable is a key shortcoming of the iPod: battery life. The design and the ease with which the whole network ties together makes me accept the annoyance. Before my iPod I had an Archos player. It had better battery life but its software was hard to navigate. It was a clunky machine as well. So Apple won — for me and many others.
ABH–I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, however, I’ve found the 1gb shuffle has the battery life, and the playlist, to get me to the East coast and back again and fit in my pocket. The 40gb iPod has become my portable backup drive–where again it offers a seamless solution. Cringely (Has Google Peaked?) offers a tantalizing scenario of Mac OS 10.4 shipping on every iPod (being a bootable drive). Now that Apple has successfully ported the Mac OS to run on PC hardware, could any computer potentially become our home computer…complete with our desktop?
One element I think you missed is design. The I-pod is inherently easy to recognize, use and has an emotive aspect deeply lacking in the competition …especially the Dell DJ. The design of the I-world is a clear advantage and I am curious which came first – the I-pod line of the supporting services. From a product innovation point of view I would hope that the central product came first and all of the ancillaries grew out of a creative need. However this leads me to question was the I-pod the core product or was the I-tunes music player?
ABH– I don’t mean to dismiss the traditional role of design–as look and feel. Rather, I think the role of design is expanding (or has always encompassed) to include the networks that any new product or service links to. At Apple, the music player came first (almost two years earlier). But the iPod was what changed the music industry, by turning the trickle of users adopting the digital music format into a sea change. The big challenge is whether designers can expand to encompass a similarly expansive challenge, or will someone else?