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Switched On: Audio companies should plant seeds, not pick Apples


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column that covers everything related to digital convergence, the connected home, and all those other multimedia buzzwords that marketers are tossing out these days:

Undoubtedly, the greatest impact that the digital music revolution has had upon consumer electronics has been portable devices. Whether you choose a flash memory player such as the Rio Cali, a 1-inch hard disk-based player like the Creative Zen Micro, or an 80GB Archos AV480 with DVR capabilities, there is a wide variety of form factor tradeoffs from a strong field of vendors available.

While there are many fine portable players out there, however, the one to beat has been the iPod. Rarely have such a wide array of companies, including rivals such as Sony and Microsoft, worked so earnestly to unseat a market leader. The Game Boy and its progeny, for example, have attracted plenty of competition in their 15 years of marketplace dominance, but rarely have more than one or two appeared for any specific generation of the device. Rather, Game Boy competitors have been like the anonymous minions in old kung fu movies, patiently waiting in line for their turn to get clobbered.

However, imagine if Sony and Microsoft had foolishly ignored the home console gaming and expended all of their energy trying to beat Nintendo�s portable market leader. With all the focus on the iPod and portable listening, you�d think that it was the last frontier for digital music, but just the reverse is true. Stray just slightly from this portable panacea, and MP3 options dwindle rapidly with MP3-CDs sometimes providing the only broadly available solution. CD burners have evolved to the point where creating an MP3-CD is fairly painless. However, the media compares poorly to flash players that have a size advantage and hard disk players that have a capacity advantage.

The iPod has become such a poster child for digital music that companies as diverse as Alpine, BMW, and Monster Cable are now working on solutions for integrating it into cars, while Bose, JBL, Altec Lansing, and Digital Lifestyle Outfitters have tried to turn them into miniature home stereos. For the iPod owner, it�s great to have these options, but MP3 should be no different than CDs, cassettes, and even 8-tracks before it. Wouldn�t the market be served by standalone devices optimized for a particular setting?

Car stereo systems should be well-integrated, but it�s been tough to find solutions since the pricey empeg/RioCar player drove into the community-supported sunset. There are a handful of lesser-known products, such as the promising Rockford Fosgate OmniFi (which can optionally transfer songs via Wi-Fi), PhatNoise PhatBox (now offered as a dealer-installed option by Mazda) and SSI America NeoCar Jukebox (which now has adapters available for some Kenwood and Pioneer head units). However, hard disk-based offerings from Sony and Alpine have four-figure retail prices and relatively low capacity.

Furthermore, while the OmniFi, PhatBox, and NeoCar Jukebox all have home versions, there has been little available in the home jukebox market since early experiments from HP and Compaq. Much of the recent activity in home MP3 has focused on streaming music from the PC, but it seems silly to put such demands on a home network every time you want to hear a song. One of the few devices with local storage from a mainstream company is the RCA RTD750 Home Theater in a Box available from for about $600, but there are also higher-end standalone products from Escient (now owned by the parent company of Denon and Marantz) as well as complex networked systems available from Bose, Onkyo, and Yamaha. That�s all great for prosumers, but there is no current post-CD era successor to the basic home stereo. This once staple product of bedrooms may have fallen victim to PC proliferation, particularly for the next generation of consumers.

Still, PCs can�t be everywhere. Audio manufacturers need to address that, in the wide world beyond portable listening, the flexibility of digital audio really has yet to penetrate the mainstream. The next column will discuss three audio form factors where it hardly exists at all.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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