City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

I was contacted by a journalist from The Observer last Thursday for some soundbites regarding the iPod etc. I duly wrote rather too much, none of which made the final cut. But rather than leave the thoughts embedded in an email conversation, I thought I’d just cut and paste up my answers here, along with their original four questions. They were somewhat off-the-cuff, conversational, ill-thought-through, and fairly simplistic (given the intended audience). Never stopped me before though …

"1. Why is iPod so popular and will the Mini be as big here as in America?"

The iPod is currently the most popular mp3 player due to the combination of extremely high quality interaction design, seductive product design and utterly seamless integration with a user’s music collection and now the iTunes Music Store. No one, thus far, has thought through the issues of organising, sharing, and playing music in multiple locations as deeply as Apple – and actually delivered on it. The iPod is part of a bigger play by Apple to ‘own’ and support a user’s music experience – it’s the personal and portable end of a bigger system.

Its comparatively high price appears to be no real barrier – the high production values and ease-of-use seem worth paying for, certainly by early adopters of such tech. It’s worth noting that the actual sales figures don’t quite match up to the its seemingly ubiquitous presence in the popular imagination. However, those sales have largely been to a culturally powerful set of users, such that the iPod has become pretty much iconic – its ongoing success seems assured for some time … It’s effectively marketing itself.

The Mini is likely to be massive here too, yes. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests there are already loads over here, impatiently imported from the US! There’s a school of thought that it’s aiming beyond the ‘alpha-geek’ early adopters of the original iPods and specifically towards a wider audience, especially women. I’m not so sure about this – I think the even smaller size, neater interface and varying colour options are *universally* appealing factors, and the smaller capacity doesn’t really matter for most people, most of whom had smallish record/CD collections. Not many people actually own 10000 songs (the capacity of the 40gb iPod). So while music listening is still based around personal collections, which isn’t necessarily a logical conclusion going forward, the iPod Mini is plenty big enough. So yeah, I’d guess the Mini is going to be big! [In Micro Anvika yesterday, a salesperson noted they’d been flying off the shelves at their four London branches. A ‘retail event’ on its debut, for sure.]

2. Are we in, or heading for, a VHS v Betamax-style schism of different servers and players (ie iTunes compatible only with iPods; Sony Connect with Sony etc) Who will win or how will it be resolved?

We’re already in the middle of a highly contested terrain here … and evidence suggests that fragmentation and constant, vaulting competition is the order of the day. Caveat emptor. I think VHS and Betamax isn’t quite the comparison – the bigger story here, as with most things around computing and the media, is perhaps between proprietary and open standards. mp3 is arguably the de factor standard out there, but the file size and sound quality is generally not that good. But it’s open, and there’s a vast amount of music available in that format. Windows Media sounds better and makes smaller files but is inherently limited to a particular suite of devices, following Microsoft’s general strategy. Sony’s products and proprietary formats likewise. This actively limits potential consumption, but is based around close integration with their highly-used related products. Apple’s iTunes plays mp3s but is actually increasingly based around AAC, a non-proprietary ‘MPEG standard’ format, also with good compression and sound quality, and tight integration with their related technologies. But their ‘related technologies’ are essentially niche products in terms of sales – albeit an influential niche. The iPod is Apple’s first product to truly dominate a market in terms of sales and influence, and as their choice of formats actually feels inherently more open than many of their competitors at this point, and I would imagine that’s part of their success.

Technology keeps on developing, apparently with faster rates of replacement, and it’s unlikely that any single audio format will have the reign VHS has had. Equally, old formats never really totally disappear. There will always be significant usage of all of the aforementioned formats – so really, the consumer is going to be left with a mess of competing formats. Vinyl still has a very strong following!

Depends as to whether you’re an optimist or not, really … Those who see open standards in the interest of the users, encouraging technical and cultural innovation, always have their views tempered by the reality of a handful of large corporations seemingly growing stronger thanks to proprietary formats. I don’t think there’s a clear answer here, certainly not right now – with an emerging market based around early adopters and disruptive technologies …

"’3. Could such a war be fought by different providers signing exclusive deals with particular artists? (eg if iTunes said we’ve got Robbie Williams, while Napster said we’ve got Dido, and you need to buy our product to hear them)"

This is a potential scenario I guess, but it would hardly be interest of labels or consumers to do that at the moment i.e HMV stocks the output of all the major, and many minor, labels, as does Virgin Megastore, as does Amazon. It would seem counterproductive for the record industry bit of the music industry to sell their product in only one of these stores exclusively. And certainly not in the interests of the music fan. The analogy extends online, I think. Another factor in Apple’s current success has been to successfully orientate the music listening and purchasing experience so smoothly around the needs of the user. The punter is increasingly unforgiving of any barriers placed in the way of a seamless experience of navigation towards music you want to listen to (or didn’t know you wanted to listen to) and then listening to or buying said music. Apple has coupled most aspects of the music experience into such a coherent offering that *their* fully-stocked music shop is only one click away from *your* music collection. There’s huge potential in that proximity and fluidity, both for the music industry and music fans. That potential is limited by exclusive deals – no user is going to ask for such a situation, just as no user ever asked for their region 2 DVDs not to work in the USA [a line I nicked from Cory Doctorow, so credit due to him there]

Your original question gets more interesting if we think about revenue streams for a music industry beyond sales of individual tracks or albums … towards whatever model replaces that. For instance, subscription; pay per play; or completely free access to listening with revenue drawn from elsewhere (patronage, live performance, high production value physical product i.e. reintroducing an aspect of scarcity) … All conjecture …

"4. Do you know if Microsoft is launching a big download site before the end of the year?"

I don’t know about Microsoft’s plans in this area. However, whether they do or not, it’s quite something to see the most forward thinking work around the music industry coming from what are traditionally members of the computing industry …


One response to “Some quick notes on the iPod Mini and the digital music marketplace”

  1. AH Avatar

    with the talk of apple’s dominance of the market set to end with the launch of microsoft’s music store (in the observer article) has anyone seen this story concerning apple’s pre-emptive thinking surrounding this situation?
    i see an ipod firmware update when the windoze store opens.


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