iPod turns 5. Competitors turn stomachs. And Apple's just gettin' warmed up

Summary:I was contacted by a public radio reporter today to comment on the fifth anniversary of Apple's iPod and here is basically what I said:In the longstanding tradition of the Mac, Apple has done an absolutely brilliant job demystifying what is otherwise a complex technical process. It is only in recent years that some of the competing products have managed to catch up to the usability of the iTunes/iPod duo.

I was contacted by a public radio reporter today to comment on the fifth anniversary of Apple's iPod and here is basically what I said:

In the longstanding tradition of the Mac, Apple has done an absolutely brilliant job demystifying what is otherwise a complex technical process. It is only in recent years that some of the competing products have managed to catch up to the usability of the iTunes/iPod duo. But, by the time they did, it was basically too late. Apple controls 70 percent of the portable digital audio player market and, in the US, 88 percent of sales of downloadable music. Not only that, Apple has successfully bridged a usability story into a fashion story which has taken the attraction to the iPod to an entirely different level that no other technology vendor will be able to duplicate. That's because they're all pretty much fashion stupid. Just look at the billboards for the iPod. That thing in the hand of the youthful hipster doesn't even look like an iPod. 

Recently, at Gartner Symposium, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer talked about Microsoft's stick-to-it-iveness with the message that once his company commits, it has the resources to keep at it until it wins. Only, in the portable digital audio space, the company didn't stick to it.  Instead, after it's PlaysForSure ecosystem barely made a dent in Apple's momentum, it went back to square one with a brand called Zune that, except for a few minor details, will pretty much mirror Apple's strategy (where the content comes from the same source as the hardware does). When Microsoft about faces, this is a sign that Apple is in charge. 

And just when all of Apple's competitors are turning to plan B, and just when a few cell phone vendors are getting hip to the idea of including iPod-like functionality in a mobile phone (something that no smartphone maker has quite figured out how to do very gracefully), Apple is about to swoop in and show them all how its done because you know that Steve Jobs would never let an iPhone see the light of day unless it's absolutely perfect. Nokia, Ericcson, Sony, Samsung, Motorola and the rest of the lot of them (as well as Microsoft and the other portable audio manufacturers) will be left so stunned by Apple's entry into the market that it will feel as though a supertrain with a wild party on it just left the train station while they were left standing on the platform say "But,...but..."

None of this is very good for consumer choice. Buying iPods engenders the purchase of content at Apple's iTunes Music Store which in turn engenders the purchase of iPods for the rest of your life because your content collection won't work anywhere else.  Imagine for example if music from Sony's artists only worked on Sony's walkmans, forever. You get the picture. Not good. 

How's this going to end. Eventually, some governments will force Apple's hand under antitrust law. If not here in the US, then somewhere else. Apple knows this and the name of the game at this point is arbitrage. Somewhere, on Apple's general counsel's spreadsheet, is the cost of an antitrust settlement against the company -- the sort where the company is forced to open up its interfaces on a fair licensing basis much the same way Microsoft has been forced to do the same. No matter how conservative the what-if scenarios in that spreadsheet are, Apple will still profit and very famously so. 

Here's a good question.  With Apple Mac sales going up (on the coattails of iPod sales), what happens when Apple decides not to make a Windows version of iTunes? 

Topics: Apple

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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