Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Not every company producing smartphones cares much about other kinds of portable devices, but those that do can heed a lesson from Apple. By leveraging the popularity, platform, and distribution of the iPhone, Apple deftly created the market for iPod touch applications. One would now be hard-pressed to name another non-cellular handheld device that has access to as many modern applications as Apple's flagship digital media player. Under some definitions, it has become the first mass-market Mobile Internet Device (or MID).

Targeting both phone and non-phone platforms has allowed Apple to greatly increase the installed base for iPhone applications. Last month, Apple announced that it had shipped 17 million iPhones, and 13 million iPod touches, increasing the base of devices for "iPhone" applications 76 percent.

Convergent devices like the iPhone and iPod touch are often looked at in terms of their potential to cannibalize a wide swath of other kinds of portable devices. These include the popular (digital cameras, portable navigation devices, handheld gaming platforms), the obscure (remote controls for presentation programs and the Sonos multi-room music system), and the humble (alarm clocks, calculators and pedometers).

But the iPhone and iPod touch have also stepped up where other devices were not viable. A great example of this is the popular song identification application Shazam that Apple has advertised nationally. Back in the '90s, two companies from the opposite ends of the consumer electronics world -- giant Sony with its eMarker and startup Xenote with its iTag -- tried launching key fob devices that would identify songs on the radio, but neither got off the ground. Sony offered a refund for the few eMarkers that got into consumers' hands.

Shazam (and competitor Midori), both allow you to purchase songs you've tagged but, as is with all iPhone and iPod touch applications, the only option for music purchase is the iTunes store, now available over 3G connections as well as Wi-Fi. And, of course, there are other, shifting restrictions on what kinds of applications can be offered and how they can operate once they are acquired.

Those who want a more open Web-savvy alternative to the iPhone have had one for a few months in the T-Mobile G1, but those who have wanted a more open alternative to the iPod touch that leverages smartphone development will also have an option this fall in the Android-based Movit mini. The Movit mini will be offered by GiiNii, a company that came on the scene last year offering digital picture frames at Wal-Mart.

Much as the iPod touch is billed primarily as a digital media player, the Movit mini is being billed primarily as a portable Skype phone, perhaps to avoid direct confrontation with Apple's iPod dominance. But make no mistake, the Apple and GiiNii product are more conceptually similar than different.

While the Movit products likely won't match the incredibly slim profile of the iPod touch, it's slated to offer larger screen options at 4.3" or 7" (useful for video playback), a built-in microphone, a video camera, and a microSD slot for expandable memory. It should also support the same strong Webkit-based browser as the T-Mobile G1. Finally, GiiNii plans to offer a link to the Android Market, which will open the door to hundreds or thousands of applications that Movit mini customers can install. But again, they would not exist were it not for the larger market that Android-based smartphones will offer. And unlike for netbooks that hold romanticized potential for Android, many smartphone apps should make the transition painlessly to these smaller tablets.

Unfortunately for Giinii, Android has not yet attracted the raw number of applications that the iPhone has. Despite T-Mobile's advertising of the G1 on national television has focused more on capabilities than the platform or third-party applications. So GiiNii will need to be patient and give the platform time to mature and attract more developers.

That means waiting for more Android-based smartphones, which are the most important devices for Android, but the Movit will likely attract many applications that wouldn't pass muster in Apple's App Store either because they conflict with Apple revenue streams, they operate best in the background, or other reasons. While, as a digital media player, the Movit mini may not fare much better than other MP3 players Apple has stared down, it represents a new entry in a class of mobile computers free from carrier bonds that likely represent the future of the portable media player''s high end. And with more flexibility in terms of what applications run on it and how, the Movit mini will paradoxically embrace more of the PC development spirit than its daunting iCompetitor from a PC pioneer.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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