January 6, 2006 4:00 AM PST

iPod rivals ready for prime time at last?

A shadow shaped like an apple is looming behind many of the star-studded speeches and product announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Even though Apple Computer is likely saving its biggest news for its own Macworld conference in San Francisco next week, there's little doubt that the Silicon Valley tech pioneer is on the minds of many at CES.

Apple's iPod has dominated the portable audio market so completely over the past few years that giants like Sony and Microsoft have been reduced to also-rans. Now, four years since the first iPod was introduced, the question remains: With new product lineups and services, can the iPod's rivals finally start reeling in the market leader?

"We've got a lot of work to do. On the PC, our stuff is still the most popular stuff out there. It's not true in the portable device space, and I think we have to do some stuff to simplify the experience."
--Steve Ballmer
CEO, Microsoft

Optimistic iPod competitors dot the Vegas convention halls this week. But even the biggest companies concede they've got a long way to go to catch the most successful consumer electronics product of the past decade.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in an interview with CNET News.com. "On the PC, our stuff is still the most popular stuff out there. It's not true in the portable device space, and I think we have to do some stuff to simplify the experience."

If there is hope for Apple's rivals, it may lie in the swiftly changing nature of the digital-media market. As consumers warm to online music, they're beginning to look for more choices, and different kinds of devices, Apple's rivals argue.

Part of the iPod's success, of course, is due to its seamless links to Apple's iTunes music store and software. Apple CEO Steve Jobs' bet that consumers would respond to a simple offer of 99 cent songs that can be easily downloaded to his iPod device has paid off handsomely.

Digital song sales remain only about 5 percent of the overall music market, but Apple's overwhelming dominance of that business has helped keep iPod's share of the MP3 player market near 70 percent, with more than 6.4 million sold last quarter alone.

Apple rivals are increasingly betting that subscription services, which let consumers listen to an unlimited amount of music for a monthly fee, can undermine that lead. This year, most of the major iPod rivals are expected to support Microsoft software that will allow such vast amounts of music to be transferred onto portable devices from a PC. The iPod does not support subscription services.

In the past, however, this all-you-can-eat model has been confusing for device owners. Virtually all devices that use Microsoft technology carry the company's "Plays For Sure" logo, intended to show compatibility among all the devices and online services that Microsoft's products mesh with. But there's been a catch: Not all the devices have actually been fully compatible with subscription services.

special coverage
Apple's new crop
Sink your teeth into all the news from this week's Macworld Expo.

Most new Microsoft-based MP3 players now have a subscription capability. Microsoft also plans to market music subscription plans from MTV and other companies as it gears up for the launch of Windows Vista operating system later this year, potentially giving the model new momentum.

But analysts note that Apple rivals still lack a simple link between online services and devices. The extra work of matching different companies' devices and services may well keep consumers coming back to Apple, some say.

"There are promising alternatives," said Yankee Group analyst Nitin Gupta. "But there need to be integrated marketing efforts, (instead of) requiring the customer to put the package together."

CONTINUED: Devices du jour…
Page 1 | 2

33 comments

Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Sansa?
Its twice as thick as the iPod Nano and doesnt include a Contact
Manager or video gamesand its the same price! Why would
anyone be that stupid?

(Of course, millions of people still use Microsoft Windows&.) ;-)
Posted by the Otter (247 comments )
Reply Link Flag
These Maybe?
Bigger screen, video playback, FM tuner and replaceable battery?
Posted by dysonl (151 comments )
Link Flag
URGE?
Urge? Urge? Who in the hell came up with such a stupid name?
I got urge! I have them every day!
I thought M$ hired lots of creative minds.
Posted by Goose (93 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sounds better than BEG
They'll be begging...err..urging people to use their service.
Posted by nmcphers (261 comments )
Link Flag
That's a cute name
The first thing coming to my mind - urge to go to the bathroom....

Whoever came up this name must drink a lot of water.
Posted by johnqh (236 comments )
Link Flag
Just one little problem
In reading this, it appears to me that the Win providers are thinking this is all business as usual, e.g. that it's Windows (Microsoft) vs. OSX (Apple). But iPods rely on iTunes, which runs on Windows, so this really isn't a battle at the OS level.

In this instance, I'm not sure I'd bet against Apple. I wouldn't be surprised if we see an iTunes plugin that converts WMA files to AAC for example (which might already exist?). If iTunes was limited to OSX, then I'd be more willing to believe that Apple has a problem.
Posted by R. U. Sirius (745 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Converts WMA
It does convert Non DRM WMA files automatically.
Posted by CitizenX (522 comments )
Link Flag
Microsoft doesnt get it...
First of all... I could care less about MTV and Microsoft joining forces. MTV's current crowd, the teenager that loves rap and hip-hop music, does not appeal to me in the least. The brand itself has faded, and I think this much ballyhooed service will become a perennial flop just like all the other touted services by Microsoft. Secondly, Microsoft wants to create a seamless environment with the players and software services. I dont see how this will happen with the Rhapsodys, Yahoo Music Unlimited, Napsters, Music Nows and the like if they all have different interfaces, connection schemes, etc. I've read many forums and posts where the "seamless" integration isn't as seamless as they say it is. Some players have problems with certain services. Some players are DRM 10 compatible for purchased music, but not for subscription, and the list goes on and on. Not to mention the annoyance of the per track delay while the player validates the subscription status (about two or three seconds per song). Microsoft has a very long way to go to grab the mindshare of the consumer, their trust, and their wallets. Apple's ipod may not be the absolute best mp3 player out there. But they are a respectable company, actually innovative (a word Microsoft would know NOTHING about), and gives a great service for a very fair price.

If Microsoft wants to even make a dent in Apples market share, then hit them where it hurts- gain industry acceptance through goodwill, cooperation (without heavy handed tactics), innovation, and use that ever so large war chest to discount songs purchased through your affiliate services/MSN Music store. Once you get enough people to purchase enough songs/albums to have a worthwhile investment, they wont be able to go anywhere else because of the proprietary WMA format.

I have owned an iPod Mini, a Rio Carbon, and a Creative Zen Xtra. Both WMA with Janus support.
All the while, the iPod has worked the best, with the most intuitive interface and oh yes, much better integration with my pc with OUT having to upgrade my firmware or pc to get my device to work out of the box. WHAT a concept.
Posted by naterandrews (256 comments )
Reply Link Flag
MS Geekboy can't dance
Apple has been deeply entrenched into the music business &
musicians lives for decades. Macs have been & continue to be
the computer of choice within the professional & independant
music business. WHY? Because they are so easy to use, do what
they need to do, get out of the way & let creative people BE
CREATIVE.

Macs were ahead of MS when it came to QuickTime &
multimedia/CD-ROM inclusions as STANDARD equipment way
before PC boxes with Windows in the past.

Apple has always seen the Personal Computer as an instrument
of creativity, learning & exploration...the art of science. ("Think
Different Campaign)
WinPCs have always been about the the bottom line corporate
business discount no frills beige box.

Which one do you think the music industry would trust &
embrace?

So, when Apple put out the iPod 2001 before iTunes Music Store
existed, they made sure that the iPod synced with iTunes
database Library on your computer only to stop people from
stealing music, the Music Industry was behind them on that
matter.

When Steve Jobs made the deal with 5 leading Music Companies
to create the iTunes Music Store for legal downloading of music
to Mac & WinPC computers, they listened.

So Apple has the entire delivery sytems of music covered from
musical artists, recording engineers, music distribution
companies, legal download online store, digital library database
software of iTunes for Windows & Mac, well designed & popular
iPods for Macs & Windows with DRM...

How has Microsoft in the past & today come close to the efforts
that Apple has been making for the last 20 years?

It's not just about the MP3 player people, it's about the WHOLE
SYSTEM.
Posted by Llib Setag (951 comments )
Reply Link Flag
nicely put
Very well worded observations. I'd add that there's always been an emotional connection in Mac marketing and the whole Apple mythology is tied up with one's emotional connection to Apple machines -- and since people tend to have an emotional connection to their media collections, it's a good fit.
Posted by tipper_gore (74 comments )
Link Flag
Re: iPod Competitor
I have to laugh because these companies just don't get it!
Go and look at the iRiver U10 presentation...
They use an Apple commercial clone...but the funniest thing is
their tag line: "Two steps forward"
First thing to your mind?
"One step Back!"
Their marketing department should be shot!
Posted by Stefan Oetter (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Message has been deleted.
Posted by drippydonut (3 comments )
Link Flag
suggestions
The battery issue is one that will ultimately affect all
rechargeables. Replacing an iPod battery is NOT expensive or
difficult unless you are not very good with your hands. Third
party replacement batteries come with the required tool to open
an iPod and you can replace it yourself. Or you can have a
technician do it for a small charge. Plus, the battery in an iPod
lasts a lot longer than a couple of years unless you listen to it
and recharge it literally 20 hours a day.

I guess my answer to your question is this: Buy something that
you will be happy with because the battery replacement is a fact
of life for all portables. You will be quite happy with an iPod
because of its ease of use as well as its beauty.
Posted by lesfilip (496 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This was for Steve Wilcox
This was in response to commenter Steve Wilcox above.
Posted by lesfilip (496 comments )
Link Flag
The problem is...
Who wants a subscribtion service? Not only do you have to pay
monthly, but you don't own your music. As soon as you stop
paying you lose all the music. Why would you want that? I mean
I can understand that you can never lose anything if your hard
drive fails, but if you don't own it what's the point. Plus napster
can't do math 10,000 songs from the iTMS does not cost
$10,000 it costs $9,900 (and who buys every song from from
iTunes anyway, why would you buy an iPod if you had zero
songs?).
Posted by (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wrong perspective
I think you're looking at it wrong. Subscription services are more akin to cable or satellite radio than they are to traditional music purchasing. Plenty of people are buying into satellite radio and with subscription services you have the added benefit of getting to choose your own content (albeit from a selection that is limited to begin with). And sure, just like satellite radio or cable you lose the content if you cancel your subscription. But like those mediums, if you keep paying, you keep the content, plus you get the new stuff that comes along. And once again subscription gets the nod because if that new content just doesn't measure up, you still have full access to all the classic content whenever you want instead of waiting for some station manager to schedule it.
Consider also that music falls in and out of favor. As an individual's music collection grows larger, they are bound to listen less to certain music and perhaps not at all to some. The point is, it doesn't matter if I own it if I'm not listening to it.
Subscription services may not be for everyone, but I think there is a market for them.
Posted by someguy389 (102 comments )
Link Flag
iPod as Stereo Component
I want an iPod that fits in my stereo cabinet.

No buttons or display on it ... it can use a remote and my TV. And I want it to sync wirelessley (802.11) back to my computer to provide videos, pictures, and music through my stereo and TV.

And it should be cheap (say $200) because it doesn't need expensive tiny displays, expensive tiny batteries, or expensive tiny hard drives.

Anybody else want that?
Posted by open-mind (1027 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why iPod?
First of all, why are you referring to a DAP as an iP0d; iP0d is a brand, not a type of device. Secondly, if you want a component that will compliment a high-quality stereo, why are you talking about a mp3 player with overall, compared to more audiophile orientated players, poor sound quality?

What do you want, someone to custom build you a video-DAP for under $200 dollars? Your having a laugh! Ever heard of a Media Centre PC? (<--it was a rhetorical question) Go buy one...

And in future, remember you friend- his name is google.
Posted by drippydonut (3 comments )
Link Flag
I have an iPod AND a Muvo
I like the Creative Muvo. It's small, inexpensive, and perfect for when I take a walk. I'd never give up my iPod but I would take a Muvo over a Shuffle any day.
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
Reply Link Flag
well duh
anyone would take the muvo over a SHUFFLE. comon shuffle is far seperated from its siblings.

the new ipod and ipod nano, however, rules the muvo.
Posted by assman (1101 comments )
Link Flag
iPod Rules...
in a world of lazy and impatient technophobic average-joes who are overly conscious about image and "coolness".
Posted by dysonl (151 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Message has been deleted.
Posted by drippydonut (3 comments )
Link Flag
typo
*earlier

... for the anal people.
Posted by Stufiano (88 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Does Steve Balmer know how to spell iPOD?
I mean let's face it, you don't have to be genius to figure out a minute after listening to Steve talk that the missing link isn' too far back in his family tree.
Posted by lrd123 (50 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Windows XP Media Center Edition
....has been out since 2002...

Apple Front Row...2005....
Posted by darrius3365 (98 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Macintosh TV
Was releaseed in 1993...
Win XP Media Center 9 years later...
Posted by Stufiano (88 comments )
Link Flag
The interface...not features
I think what the original thread poster was trying to say was that Microsoft copied the interface of FrontRow (i.e. movies, pictures, music...submenus in that, etc)....with the remote control, full-screen, tv-like interface.

It has already been indicated here that Windows XP Media Center Edition came out in 2002. Although Macs may have had TV capabilities since the 90s (and so did the PCs), that has nothing to do with the interfaces presented in FrontRow and WinX MCE.
Posted by darrius3365 (98 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: Sansa
I guess you are talking about the Creative Zen Vision M.

It does have an FM Tuner, more colors, and the ability to play multiple video formats.

If the "Plays for Sure" manufacturers merely copy the features of the iPod, then it will not be an alternative. Some things have to be different.
Posted by darrius3365 (98 comments )
Reply Link Flag
WMP on mac does not support DRM/stores
You cannot listen to music bought from WMA stores let alone buy
songs on a mac.

iTMS is available on windows as well as Mac OS X.

Which is worse? Platform & device lockin or just music player
lockin?
Posted by aristotle_dude (165 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No serious restrictions....
I have a friend who found a Rio on the street. It apparently had
fallen from a car, and may have even been run over once or twice,
but the litlle bugger still works. And it works very nicely on a Mac.
It can hold MP3 files, and WMA files (which are of no serious
interest). Since MP3 is quite adequate for small audio players, the
Rio is as good as the iPod as far as I can see. And the Mac with
Amadeus can convert virtually any audio file format into MP3.

End of problem. End of concern. And the price is very right!!!!!
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot

Discussions

Shared

RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.