Will the Real iPod Kill Please Stand up?
Ever since Apple took over the MP3 market with its well designed iPod, there have been efforts to take the mantle of king of MP3 players. Apple wasn't the first MP3 player, that distinction goes to the Eiger Labs MPMan F10. This was technically the first non-mechanical digital audio player on the American market. Even though few ever heard of it, it was clearly a technology ahead of its time back in the summer of '98.
Next came the Rio PMP300 which owned the MP3 market for a time. Several other MP3 players began to arrive, including offerings from Creative, a manufacturer of PC components. Creative's Nomad entered the market with much critical acclaim for it's highly functional micro-HDD based 6-GB MP3 player. This was bigger than anything anyone had yet seen. In 2001 Apple released its one-two punch; the Apple iPod combined with their own online music service called iTunes. Together iPod and iTunes have slid to the top of the MP3 player market. Today Apple makes approx. 80% of all MP3 players sold internationally.
It's not surprising there would be healthy competition for the original 20 gig iPod. What is surprising are the companies that seem content to let the iPod dominate the large micro-HDD market while they dig out a smaller niche for themselves, cleverly avoiding confrontation with Apple. Many MP3 players are designed as small ROM based devices. These devices seemed safe from Apple until the first quarter of 2005 when they released the iPod Shuffle. Apple continues to up the ante with the Mini and the Nano, tightening their grip on the MP3 crown.
There are some who look to knock that crown off Apple's head with unique features and possible improvements over iPod's design. Reigncom, developer of the iRiver MP3 player, sought to dig into iPod's market share just as Apple was expanding theirs in the first quarter of 2005. The iRiver H10 was a 20 gig design aimed squarely at the iPod's dominance with features like FM radio and image viewer on its 1.5 inch color display. Retailing as much as the regular iPod at $300 and featuring an array of color choices, it seemed like a good choice to out-feature the conventional iPod.
But Reigncom's chairman Jong Koo Sun is guarded about trying to out-iPod the iPod. He didn't want to design an iPod imitator. Instead Reigncom tried to develop an MP3 player that outdoes the iPod in features and doesn't try to compete with Apple's slick design. Really, who can? Apple practically defined slick design in the 21st Century. Early in the release of the H10 it was plagued by bugs that have been fixed with subsequent firmware updates. Today's product is a more solid product than what was first released, but it has a long hill to climb to sell anything near Apple's numbers.
The next so called, iPod killer is from a consumer electronics juggernaut who is no stranger to dusting off their knuckles for a good old fashioned industry brawl. Sony thinks they have the real iPod killer on their hands. Sony is recycling the familiar Walkman brand with the new NW-HD5 model of Sony Walkman MP3 player designed to suck some of the black ink out of Apple's profit graph. The HD5 is Sony's 20 gig MP3 player that retails at just under the Apple iPod- you can find the HD5 on the streets for around $280 and online for even less.
While savings isn't significant, the new Walkman offers a few extras. Sony wisely left out the FM radio, that obligatory feature every would-be iPod feels they must include. Do consumers really care if they don't have FM when they're using a high capacity MP3 player? FM on a high capacity MP3 player would seem like including a horse when you buy a car. Sony boldly goes toe to toe with Apple in one category that Apple would seem dominant, design. The Walkman features a cutting edge intelligent display with what they're calling follow turn technology. This means the graphics shift position depending on how the user holds the walkman in an effort to create an experience of fluidity to the interface and higher visibility. Sony promises the most "innovative interface yet seen on a portable music device."
Where Sony really gets it right is the user removable/replaceable battery that Sony specs at running for up to 40 hours on a full charge. Removable battery is one feature where Sony moves in on the Achilles heel of Apple's iPod. The 40 hour rechargeable battery requires the kind of development brains and brawn that only a company like Sony could muster. These are tangible features that make Sony's Walkman a true contender for mantle of iPod killer.