Winner by Default

Apple went a little crazy with the iPod announcements today. There’s the iPod touch, for when you want to carry something larger than any previous iPod in order to have 16 gigabytes of media with you or when you find yourself in a wi-fi hotspot without a computer. And there’s the iPod nano, which is much bulkier than the previous iPod nano in order to accommodate video, but still isn’t large enough to actually watch video on. The iPod classic, on the other hand, with 160 gigabytes of storage in an enclosure just over half an inch thick, is damned impressive.

The three trends that I see emerging from these announcements are the whole line (with the exception of the screenless iPod shuffle) offering video playback, the touch screen interface from the iPhone moving into the iPod line, and wi-fi moving from the iPhone to the iPod line as well. On the basis of sheer Apple-focused consumer hysteria (an increasingly widespread phenomenon) alone, I think these will all prove successful, but I’m not sure if they really should.

I see a lot of iPods on the subway, which really is the ideal environment for iPods, and it’s very rare that I see anyone watching video on them. If they’re not being used to watch video there, where is this demand for video playback on iPods coming from? Are people watching their iPods while they drive? Or are they watching in their living rooms and ignoring their televisions? And the touch screen interface really only makes sense for video playback and other operations (such as browsing the Internet or reading and writing e-mail) unrelated to music playback. It only works if you hold the iPod out in front of you, and most people listening to music seem to prefer to manipulate playback (control volume, skip songs, etc.) with the iPod in their pockets or in a case, for which the click-wheel is great and the touch screen is pretty much useless. And finally, until wi-fi availability becomes much more widespread than it is now, I’m not sure how often one will find themselves with wi-fi access but no computer.

But my misgivings aside, Apple is now far ahead of anyone else in the portable media market. As one commenter on Gizmodo‘s liveblog of the event put it, “Zune is going to have to step it up juuuust a little bit,” and I don’t think today’s $50 price cut will be quite sufficient. And in this context, NBC’s move from the iTunes store to Amazon’s Unbox looks especially badly timed. Those two non-Apple announcements say, I think, more about why Apple has been so much more successful than its competitors in this market than any announcement Apple made today. They represent two efforts to undermine Apple’s nascent digital media monopoly, they’re both Microsoft-based, and they’re not even compatible with each other. Content providers, seeking alternatives to Apple’s iTunes store (and still insisting on the illusion of protection from piracy), are providing their content through one version of Windows Media, and Microsoft, seeking to compete with the iPod product line, is providing media through a different, incompatible version of Windows Media.

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