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Switched On: The "i" behind iPod -- innovation, integration, or inertia?


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

More than two decades after the debut of the Macintosh, Apple decided not to license the iPod design generally. The one exception has been HP, which is currently acting more as a reseller than a licensee. So, as with its famous computer, the iPod's fate rests solely in Apple's hands, Those hands have pushed the polyphonic pods toward a dominant market share. However, how much of this has been due to innovation, the integration with iTunes, or simply brand momentum?

Early iPods had clear form factor and ease of use advantages versus their competitors. Nowadays, though, the hardware competition has become much stronger, particularly in the "mini" segment that's seeing strong growth. The changes that we've seen since the debut of the iPod have mostly been refinements - thinner designs, color screens, smaller form factors, shuffled controls, and tweaked interfaces. Compare this with Apple's iMac, which has seen two dramatically different form factors since incarnation. One could argue that the slow-growth consumer desktop computer market needs more pizzazz to create excitement, but shouldn't a company be advancing the product that's driving its growth most aggressively?

And what of the software � not iTunes, which has actually seen some nice feature improvements, but the iPod�s internal software? It has remained simple, but Apple only recently enabled iPods to go into shuffle mode without digging through on-screen menus. What about going beyond a basic shuffle? It seems reasonable to want to switch on the fly to more songs from a particular album or artist or to enter �mood-matching� mode and play songs that have a tempo or style similar to the one you�re playing. �The �Walkman of the 21st Century� should be giving us more of a taste of the 22nd.

Compare this to the intelligence we�re seeing added to digital cameras, where companies such as HP and Nikon are starting to add in-device features such as red-eye reduction and adaptive backlighting. Even Concord, a low-end manufacturer, has added a one-touch autofix feature.

Ask Apple what�s driving the iPod�s success and the company will tout integration. Indeed, producing a product with the benefit of tighter integration often results in losing the first-mover advantage. Apple�s integration has reaped huge benefits for the iPod in a time when digital music has been confusing and awkward for many users and the company will likely continue to maintain a wider lead here than it will in hardware or software per se. However, it�s a risky bet that over time the Windows Media world won�t simplify to the point where that advantage is minimized.

So how does Apple avoid what happened to the Mac? For one, there is no legacy of DOS-based MP3 players (an amusing image that) to create the switching costs that hurt Macs in the early years. Second, iPod-hostile IT managers aren�t making bulk music player purchase decisions weighted against Apple�s strengths. There�s also the third �i� of inertia. Apple continues to promote and diversify the iPod line, most recently in terms of finer, more consistent price point gradations.

The reasoning goes that as long as there isn�t a significant perceived price difference between the iPod and competitive products, Apple should maintain its momentum. This probably yielded more of the impetus behind the bare-bones iPod Shuffle than anything else. Having a high market share helps this strategy because it provides a financial incentive for third-parties to fill in features that might draw customers to competitors or add new ones (like car stereo integration) that are difficult for competitors to match.

After so much time competing with a master monopolist, Apple is acting as if it has learned the tricks of the trade � get it right, brand pervasively, steal opportunistically, enable diversity, and occasionally move the needle ever so gradually under the guise of not messing with success.

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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