Discussion about
tatsumaki

July 9th 2009 2:32 pm

The new PMP war...is it already lost?

One would be hard pressed to deny that Apple's iPod revolutionized the PMP marketplace. Not only did it help define what a PMP should bring to the table, the ubiquitous white player also gave other companies something to fight for: a piece of the market share Apple commanded. At that time, consumers were the winners. Companies like SanDisk and Samsung came up with a slew of PMPs with more features and interesting additions that Apple decided were unnecessary for the user experience. Even Microsoft came to the party with their Zune. However, with no one able to wrestle more than a fraction of market share away from the iPod, the PMP space has become stagnant. SanDisk retired the uber customizable e200 series and its innovative Sansa Connect and seems content to make a pittance off its Clip and Fuze sales. Samsung's flagship P2/P3 player, while a good piece of tech, has been unable to dent iPod Nano sales. Even the monolith Microsoft has failed with its Zune, despite the platform's strengths and subscription model. Sure, there are the Cowon/Archos/iRivers of the world. But those players tend to be difficult to come by (at least in the States) and tend to be more about their own niche markets than appealing to the general user.

So looking toward the future, the next big competitor seems to be the Zune HD. While I love my Zune, I find myself looking at the HD with a wary eye. For those of us who only need a PMP, nothing more, the HD seems to be a step in the wrong direction. Instead of coming up with something new and innovative, Microsoft seems to have decided that what everyone wants is an iPod Touch in an iPod Nano's body. For people who have a mobile handset to take of things like apps and browsing, a touch screen PMP with all this added functionality seems a waste. Even more distressing, if all other companies do from here on in is copy, nearly verbatim, Apple's players, what happens to the innovative cycle? Even the iPod Touch/iPhone wasn't a terribly innovative device. Most of its functions have been available on other platforms for years prior.

So my question is, what is to become of the PMP industry? Will we have to relegate ourselves to all-in-one devices? Can anyone break out of the shadow cast by Apple's dominance? What do y'all think?

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15 replies
godwhacker

i like having a stand alone pmp, because i don't want to be draining the battery on my phone all the time. i work 4-10 hour shifts, and it would just destroy my phone's battery life.

secondly, i am a tinkerer by disposition, and ms products lend themselves to this end more readily than anything from the fruit company. when it's my dough going out there, i better be able to hot-rod/customise it, or no sale.

i am growing weary of the whole "can anyone supplant apple's dominance?" idea for a couple of reasons.

1. credit where credit is due. they have put out a product which has a great appeal to the masses who either want the style of the device or like the idea of a limited feature set that doesn't need to be tweaked to work.

2. perception becomes reality insomuch that other promising platforms get discarded out of hand because they don't conform to the accepted norm, thereby limiting competition.

as a guy who owns a zune8 and a sanza e240, i am stoked for a device that is solid state, has enough storage and battery life so i could put enough tunes on it to last a week of use at work on shuffle without repeating, and not have to charge the battery for the week as well.

the zune hd may well be that device.
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tatsumaki

I guess I'm just looking for someone to break the Apple mold 'cause, so far, most players have been in response to the iPod rather than striving to take things to the next level. And if you look at what the iPod has done, historically, with regard to updates, it's been fairly incremental. The Touch was the biggest innovation they've had in a while but, again, there's not much it does that other devices could do before it.

I do like the good bits that Microsoft put into the Zune HD. I guess I'm just disappointed with the retaliatory stuff like the full touch screen and the browser. It makes sense on something like a HTC Dream or an iPhone where most of what you do requires looking at the screen. I wouldn't be able to leave my Zune in my pocket and control it sight-unseen if I upgraded to the HD.

Right now, I rock a Zune 120 for the bulk of my music and a Sansa Fuze for time when I need a light, flash-based player. With microSDs, the Fuze would be a device akin to what you're waiting for (though you already have an e240 that I'm guessing is Rockboxed). What I'm getting at is MS has done nothing to make me want to trade in those two players and replace them with a Zune HD. I'd loose the physical controls and capacity of the Zune 120 and the killer audio chipset and codec support of the Fuze. Now a 64+ GB flash player with expanded codec support, a user removable battery and a 3G radio for the ultimate content on the go experience - that might be something worth trading up for.
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Fallenarms3

PMPs move towards All-In-One devices simply because they can. Processing power continues to upscale, and more possibilities become open to the device. More features can be added to new devices without sacrificing any media function. And it's because Apple did this that it's now expected. But don't be so quick to judge every new All-In-One as an iPod ripoff. Apple continues, just as it always has, to leave certain features out of its devices (I'm lookin' at you, Radio). And I can bet that as new possibilities are added to what PMPs can do, there will be still more features Apple didn't think of. There is still room for competing companies to innovate. I think that the Zune HD does this. Perhaps not to a large degree, but keep in mind that not all of its features have yet been revealed (gaming in particular). But, even as it stands, the Zune HD is a great competitor to the current iPod Touch.
The problem is, will it compete with the next generation? If the iPhone 3GS is any indicator, I think it still has a fighting chance. Apple has only made a moderate jump this generation by adding a video camera (and a compass?), even assuming those features will go into the Touch-- the current-gen Touch doesn't even have a still-camera yet. Zune has made a huge leap by creating its first touchscreen device, with OLED, Tegra (for HD output and a huge battery life), and HD Radio. If properly advertised, this may be the first generation we see a significant reallocation of marketshare from Apple. But only if properly advertised, and that's where most companies have fallen in trying to compete with Apple. Advertising is key.

Also, the Zune HD may be smaller than an iPhone, but it's not Nano small. It's still a decently-sized device.
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tatsumaki

I was under the impression that the Zune HD was going to be near about the size of the flash Zunes...

I guess I look at it from the perspective that, first and foremost, I don't want a touch screen to be the controls of my PMP. Most times it's in my pocket and the ability to play, pause or control volume without having to take it out and fumble with it is appreciated.

I'd be the first to say that Apple products stagnate more than anyone else's; one only needs to look at the history of the Nano or the Shuffle to see that. But just because we can add features doesn't mean we need to. All those excess features are going to go unused by someone like me or godwhacker 'cause we use our phones for their intended purpose and our PMPs for music and video - what they do well.

I'll give you advertising too, but it's hard to compete with Apple in that regard. Not that their television spots are anything special (they disgust me, frankly, with the abundance of misinformation contained within). It's just that it is too easy to walk down the street and see someone using an iSomething.
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Fallenarms3

Here is an image of a Zune HD next to an iPhone-- aviary.com­/viewfull­?fguid­=94ec4fd4­-be2e­-102c­-af99­-... It's not big, but it's not Flash-sized.

Anyways, the Zune HD includes what are called "transport controls", which are designed specifically for in-pocket use. They're triggered by a press of the volume slider on the side of the device, and they allocate a quarter of the screen to each music control- volume up/down, and skip forward/back. It's not perfect, but it's also much better than, say, the iPod.

As for features, that's just the way the market is going. I get the feeling PMPs will eventually be MIDs, and then replace Netbooks. You don't have to use the extra features, but it's easier to include them for those who do. Plus, the point of an App store is so you don't have to pay for them if you don't want to.
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nosuch

I was hoping they'd do something with the volume hard buttons. Somehow I missed that bit of HD info, where'd you read about the transport controls?
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Fallenarms3

This interview- community.winsupersite.com­/blogs­/paul­/archive­/2009... is the one that called them "Transport controls" and states that the Zune UI is customized for gesture control.

Along with the Gizmodo hands-on video (gizmodo.com­/5272228­/zune­-hd­-hands­-on­-photos­-and­-vi...), I put two and two together and figured that the on-screen controls the guy triggered at 0:17 are those "transport controls".
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tatsumaki

That sounds kinda interesting, but it's no real substitute for physical controls. Basically, until we can control gadgets with our minds, I don't think we can rid ourselves of physical buttons easily. It works okay with HTC Dreams and other such touchscreen handsets, but that's because when you're using them, you're usually looking at them.
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nosuch

"For those of us who only need a PMP, nothing more, the HD seems to be a step in the wrong direction. Instead of coming up with something new and innovative, Microsoft seems to have decided that what everyone wants is an iPod Touch in an iPod Nano's body."

Imo, Zune's innovation really lies in the music arena. The subscription service is great and it's innovation really shines when combined with the friends feature. I can hop on the metro and listen to some tracks that my friends recently played - for me that's been a great way to find new music. The channels feature makes it easy to keep up with new music; i subscribe to electronic and a few other DJs i like and its helped me stay on top of new music. On the last insider podcast a developer dropped a hint about new zune software features related to DJing and got cut off by the hosts. I'd really like to see them expand that feature and let me listen to a live stream from a Zune DJ or another friend. For me this is the innovation that matters - I want my music service to help me discover new music I like. Adding the ability to check out what my friends are listening to is great.

Another thing I'd point out is that Zune hardware and software are very different from other companies offerings. The Zune software is the best looking app that I run on a day to day basis (though Blend is pretty cool too). Hell, even the cut off "e" on Marketplace is different. I like that they're not copying other companies and I'm looking forward to the new stuff in the HD.
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tatsumaki

I'm with you on the music arena being where Zune shines. Their subscription model is the best I've ever used. My greatest desire is that they offered something more along that vein. Instead of just tossing in HD radio, they could have come up with a means of delivering XM/Sirius over your Zune. Toss in a 3G radio and let us use it to stream internet radio. Another thought is to get with Amazon and tie into the Kindle Marketplace and give it some life as an ebook reader. There are possibilities that I think they've not realized. There's no real need to add a browser to the Zune nor switch the controls over to predominately touch screen based. It's those two bits that I am really focusing on when I say they're just responding to the iPod Touch. The other big feature, HD video out, is only of limited appeal to those who consume their video from the Zune Marketplace. After that, you have the AMOLED screen and the Tegra processor, which are the most useful features Microsoft added.

I'm also disappointed at the lack of Bluetooth. While not great for audio, it does have its uses (podcast listening via Bluetooth headphones/car receivers is a nice thing).
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nosuch

No doubt that Bluetooth and a 3G radio would be really nice to have. I think you can actually get XM/Sirius through the browser too.

One place I do agree with you is that there wasn't a need to go predominately touch screen. Sure its cool looking, but I do a lot of listening with the device in my pocket and I'm wondering how hard it will be to skip to the next track. Not to mention the problems I've heard about using capacitive screens when your hands are covered by gloves (though I understand there's a hack of gluing some substance to the fingertips to get around it).

I think the HDMI out could be killer if this device has Silverlight or Flash. Then you could hook it up to any tv in the house and stream netflix / hulu. Like you said though, I'm not sure I'm interested in the video marketplace. There's no way I'm paying to download an episode of a TV show (though a monthly fee might be more appealing).

That stuff aside I do see what you mean about missed potential. On top of that, why the hell didn't this come out last year?? I've got high hopes for the device but I'm starting to get used to MS taking baby steps. What you suggest, and what everyone would like to see, may take 5 years.
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TheJoker

To be honest, I believe the masses are simply going to view the Zune HD as just another iPod Touch clone. I've spoken to many of my friends, and they all seem enchanted by anything Apple introduces into the market. So, yes, while I'm sure my sample population isn't exactly representative of the entire population, it is however a worrying sign.

Many companies have been releasing thoroughly superior products to the iPods for years. Nevertheless, they have largely been relegated to the wayside due to Apple's tremendous grip on the psyche - "iPods are great, everything else are just knockoffs" - that sort of thing.

Microsoft needs to dig deep in the war to control the PMP market. At the very least, a massive ad campaign should be implemented. The general public needs to realize that there is something else beside the iPod - something that performs just as good, and looks sweet to boot.

Me? I'm hoping the Zune HD delivers all that it promises. It's certainly a PMP I would seriously consider.
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tatsumaki

Actually, I think your friends are exactly representative of the market. That's the problem. The general consumer (and I'd wager more than a few gdgt users) don't know any better than to think that Apple is the best product on the market in this category. Everything else (Zune included) is a "knockoff" and, therefore, inferior. The shame is that most of those "knockoffs" have traditionally had more features, been more open and have better codec support than any iWhatever but are ignored 'cause of the aforementioned stigma.

Here's hoping that I'm wrong about the direction the Zune HD is taking and that it blows everyone away. I somehow think it will just be yet another casualty thrown forth in front of Big A's juggernaut. I think the best hope for a shift in dominance is that consumers grow tired of the same old Apple design philosophy (I'm kinda surprised it hasn't happened already - the damn things haven't changed much over the years) and start to look for something different. Then again, I worry that iPod has become the Kleenex of the PMP world - something evidenced by the fact that no general consumer call it a PMP, DAP, DMP or any of the other generic terms that should be used. It's always an iPod, even if it's a Zune, P2/3, Fuze, or whatever.
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chuck07

You are right.

People at work love my brown iPod.
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tatsumaki

Probably almost as much as they love my Fuze Nano. ;-)
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