Entering the flash player market would signify a philosophical �switch� as profound as that of its allegedly chemically enhanced former spokesteen and �really good paper� author Ellen Feiss. Apple designed the iPod around a hard disk to compensate for the limitations of flash. However, Apple has already strayed from its original �all your music all the time� message with the successful iPod mini.
Flash players have also reached higher capacities since the iPod was introduced, but not at prices dramatically below that of the lightest iPods. The large capacity of iPods led Apple to encode iTunes songs at 128 kbps as opposed to the 64 kbps WMA files that at the time were suggested for flash players. You hear less and less these days about the iTunes Music Store as an elaborate marketing vehicle for hardware. If it wants to sell songs, more capacity is better.
Apple could steal flash market share from iRiver and Rio, but do these customers care so much about the iPod brand that they wouldn�t shell out for an iPod mini? Flash players continue to sell well at mass merchants such as Wal-Mart and price clubs, but these stores have never been especially strong for Apple. On the other hand, one of the best things about the iPod for Apple is that it�s given the company a chance to start with a clean slate, as demonstrated by its HP partnership.
One advantage that a flash iPod could have over competing devices is Apple�s proprietary but currently unbranded digital interface port, which has spurred a wide array of unique accessories. An inexpensive flash iPod that included such a port could pave the way for lower-end docking accessories such as alarm clocks, integrated �street-style� headphones, or even shower radios. While the markets for these may be limited for now, they have more mainstream appeal than the watches and sunglasses that already include MP3 players.
Aiwa�s AZ-BS32 �water-resistant speaker�, in fact, used a similar principle, but with a misguided USB flash drive-like device called PAVIT (which in retrospect must have stood for Problematic And Vastly Ignored Technology) that also worked in a portable player. While as underpowered and overpriced as many of the MP3 players previously discussed, it�s a good deal more elegant than the monstrous Sharper Image MP3-CD shower radio. Sales of such accessories would need to be speculative, though, because they probably wouldn�t work with the installed base of hard disk-based iPods.
Like embedded processors, flash memory has a bright future in improving the functionality of everyday devices, but not for holding music libraries, particularly for those trying to build businesses on expanding those digital collections. Music�s future, much like its past, rests on spinning platters.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.