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Reality Absorption Field: iPod's trail of tears, part 1

The recent celebration of iTunes tenth anniversary provided an opportunity to remember that it debuted before the iPod and was initially positioned as a way to get Macs to play well with the CD burners that had come to the iMac as well as to early MP3 players from rivals. Before and (mostly) after the iPod, it's surprising to see not only how many different companies sought success in the portable media player category, but the diversity and depth of their approaches. While some achieved a degree of success and implemented a few things that were ahead of Apple, none came close to matching Apple's success.

This column will focus on how PC companies approached the portable media player market while the next Reality Absorption Field will look at how competitors from other industries fared.

Dell and Gateway

Prior to the arrival of Microsoft's Zune, Dell was probably the most serious PC company in the media player space. Putting its own spin on Creative's internals, it released a few hard disk models of its DJ (Digital Jukebox), tapping out at 30 GB. It also released a microdrive line to compete with the iPad mini and finally the DJ Ditty line of flash players to compete with the first-generation "pack of gum" iPod shuffle . Dell even created a networked audio player based on the Rio receiver, a brand descendant from Diamond Multimedia's breakthrough iPod predecessor. The former stock market darling is now taking itself private.

Just as Gateway's PC line sought to keep pace with Dell's, so did its media player line roughly mirror Dell's interest with entries in the hard disk and flash categories. Gateway also had a networked audio player, a rebadged version of the excellent Turtle Beach Audiotron. None of these products ever competed effectively, though, and Dell's failure to take on Apple beyond the PC set a precedent for the company's struggles in other categories such as smartphones and tablets where Apple has excelled.

Compaq and Intel

Compaq and Intel both dipped their giant corporate toes in the MP3 player market and their one-hit wonder efforts were actually not too shabby. Both were early flash memory-driven efforts, Intel's Pocket Concert and Compaq-s iPAQ PA-1 (and its nearly identical follow-on, the PA-2). Intel sold a dock that allowed its blue-and-silver music player to work with matched speakers and Compaq's player -- while hardly a looker -- had a clip years before the first iPod shuffle integrated one. Intel retreated from the consumer device market while Compaq was acquired by HP.

HP

HP had what was perhaps the most unique reaction to the iPod. After holding back from the market after what was allegedly a poorly received prototype based on a partnership with Napster 2.0, it decided to try to join 'em if it couldn't beat 'em. HP iPods were identical to Apple's in nearly every respect except for the branding, which Apple also worked its way into since they were called Apple iPod+HP. HP tried to differentiate by coming out with a line of printable "tattoos" that could be affixed to the front of the devices, but in mid-2005 the strange relationship dissolved a year and a half after it began.

Microsoft

Microsoft tried to compete with the iPod in three main ways. The first of these was the launch of Playsforsure, a horrifically named digital rights management service that was to ensure compatibility between various music stores and music players. It drew support from many of the player makers, including Dell, SanDisk, iRiver, Samsung and others as well as subscription music services such as Napster and Rhapsody. The effort ultimately fizzled, though, and Apple worked to get even its digital rights management software removed from iTunes music.

Microsoft also tried licensing its software to power portable media players with a focus on video for devices called Portable Media Centers, a way to take TV shows and other media recorded Windows Media Center on the road via sideloading. Creative, iRiver, Philips, Samsung and Toshiba all hopped on that bus before it broke down.

Frustrated by the failure of these efforts and true to Steve Jobs' prediction, Microsoft jumped in itself with Zune. The first version, with its "double shot" coating and bulky, optionally brown exterior coating Toshiba's Gigabeat player internals, was unimpressive, but Microsoft made improvementst, adding the excelle "sqircle" touchpad that gave the click wheel a run for its money and introducing the sleek "full-touch" Zune HD, all with proprietary iPod-like connectors.

But the iPod touch inheriting the iPhone's avalanche of apps was the final nail in the coffin for the Zune device. And in fairness to Microsoft, the MP3 player market was already starting to move past its peak anyway. Microsoft kept the now curiously named Zune software around a while longer, but ultimately replaced it and the service to which it served as a conduit to Xbox Music. The confusing branding continues as much of what it serves today is Windows Phone devices.

The Portable Media Centers and Zune had at least one important legacy for Microsoft, though. They iterated what would become known as the panoramic Modern, nee Metro, touch user interface that Microsoft now uses on smartphones and PCs.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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