According to a story in Technology Review by John Borland (who used to work with me here at ZDNet), Sony is apparently hopeful that noise cancelling technology will give the company some advantage in the portable audio market against rivals like the iPod which happens to control 70 percent of the market. Wrote Borland:
"Portable players of all types have sounded rather bad as far back as I can remember, but the iPod really surprised me," Blackwood said in an email interview. "Now competing companies are being forced to make better sounding products just to keep up."
That's Brad Blackwood being quoted (as I laughed). He's a recording engineer out of Memphis that very likely has what audiophiles refer to as golden ears. He can hear things that you and I cannot (or maybe we can, but we'd need special training). Nothwithstanding the extent to which a decent third-party pair of noise cancelling headphones might bring an iPod up to snuff with one of Sony's newfangled offerings, Sony's investment in audio quality improvements is admirable but for the most part misplaced. It's going after a segment of the market that isn't that lucrative to go after, if your Sony.
If your Bose -- a company that has cache value with audiophiles -- the situation is a little different. Whereas it makes sense for Bose to cater to them with products like its Quiet Comfort 3 headhones (I so want a pair), audiophiles and golden ears are simply too narrow of a niche to pursue if you're a consumer electronics giant trying to cater to the masses or take on Apple. As it turns out (and this has so far been the downfall of every company trying to steal share from Apple), most of the iPod generation is far less concerned with the audio quality in their ears than they are with the image of owning an iPod and having those white headphone wires dangling from their ears. So powerful is the iPod icon, that having a set of white headphones matched to something that's not an iPod isn't good enough.
Am I downplaying implementation and quality? No way. The point is that implementation (eg: Apple's brilliant abstraction of the complex connectivity between its online store and iPods) and some measure of audio quality are simply the cost of admission. You want to take on Apple? You had better have those parts licked. Borland goes onto quote an IDC analyst:
Sony's introduction of noise-canceling technology into the device itself, with a microphone in the MP3 player that senses and counteracts ambient noise, raises the stakes considerably. Rival executives say they're watching to see how consumers react to this development, but no one has yet promised to follow suit.
"It's a way in which device vendors can differentiate themselves, and we expect to see similar strategies, if not identical ones, over time," said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "But frankly, an important issue to consider is consumers' perception of good enough. For many, even if music sounds sub-par ... the perception is that it just isn't that bad."
Raises the stakes considerably? Or sub-par isn't that bad? Which is it? Answer? The latter. Sony, Microsoft, and the whole lot of them looking to beat Apple need to realize that while they're worrying about what goes on the circuit board, Apple is mostly trying to work out the next TV commercial with U2 lead singer Bono. As it prepares to launch it's own iPod killer (Zune) in the next few weeks (just in time for the holiday season), I think Microsoft knows this. Perhaps Sony and other would-be Apple assailants have finally figured this out too. Of the bunch though, Microsoft is probably the only one with (1) the killer instinct, (2) a need to do some sort of bet-the-company move (all technology roads eventually lead to the company with the leading digital rights management system and Microsoft knows that it has to be that company), and (3) the advertising budget.
The next question of course -- the one that no one is trying to unearth the answer to -- is "who Microsoft's Bono?"