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11/03/2005 - Editorial: iPod Vs. The Opposition

The first generation iPod was released in late 2001. I was one of the first lucky owners, getting it the week it was released. This was at a time when MP3 players were either too big (with a massive hard disk) or useless (with little more than 64MB memory). My first generation iPod still works, although the battery does not last as long as it used to. Several years down the line, the iPod has evolved from one model with "only 5 GB" to the iPod Mini, iPod Shuffle, iPod, U2 iPod and iPod Photo, but I'm sure I've missed one model!

I could never see how the iPod Mini would succeed, I thought "Who'd buy an iPod Mini with 5GB when it costs 3 times more than a 20 GB iPod per megabyte and it's not that much smaller?", clearly I was wrong. The same is true of the iPod shuffle, I thought that would fail, but I've already seen people walking around listening to them! It is obvious that Apple knows what the mass market wants to buy and design their products accordingly, which explains why it is not always first to the market. Instead they wait till they have something truely exceptional. Of course, Apple are only human and they do not always succeed for example with the Apple G4 Cube several years ago. At the time it was too expensive for what it was. Apple went back to the drawing board and several years later they made the iMac Mini (which seems like a similar idea, but much smaller and cheaper). This time, it looks as though, it will be a success.

So now we come to the rivals in the MP3 player race. The most notable player in the portable audio (up until the iPod) was Sony with their legendary Walkman brand. There have been several MP3 players released by Sony over the past years. However, it has only been until this year that Sony finally introduced an MP3 player that could play MP3 tracks directly (without first conversion to Sony's proparitary Atrac3 format). I do not really blame Sony, after all, they were (and still are) major players in the music industry, so perhaps letting people play MP3s easily would seem to them as abetting music-swapping, at a time when there was very little in legal online music.

I've briefly listened to the new NW-HD3 20GB MP3 player, and it's got several notable features (apart from direct MP3 playing!) such as great battery life (longer than any iPod) and excellent sound quality. It does however, miss the iPod's spinning wheel for navigating through your music collection. SonicStage is ok (better than previous versions) for transfering music to the NW-HD3, but I prefer iTunes (actually Winamp's iPod plugin is the best!)

Apple took a different approach to Sony, let people play their MP3s but at the same offer tracks for purchase in protected AAC format. As a result people bought iPods, and also starting buying music online from Apple making the iTunes Music Store one of the biggest players. It's good Sony have followed suit. As a result the market is becoming more competitive and prices are coming down.

There are other companies out there trying to seize Apple's crown, other than Sony. Creative's new Nomad Zen Micro player attempts to outclass the iPod Mini. I've not used either for long enough to determine which is better. But again the Creative does not have the scroll wheel of the iPod Mini.

The iPod, in all its variants, is no longer alone in the market. It is therefore a testiment to Apple, that it is still the best selling player.