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Reality Absorption Field: iPod's trail of tears pt. 3

The last Reality Absorption Field discussed how pioneers in the PC peripherals market laid claim to the iPod throne as well as two consumer electronics giants in Sony and Samsung. This week's column finishes up the series with talking about how other big consumer electronics names as well as a few companies outside the PC and CE mainstream approached the digital media player business.

Consumer Electronics Companies (continued)

RCA

Along with the Creative and Rio brands, the RCA brand (owned by Thomson Consumer Electronics at the time) was an early and relatively prolific Apple competitor, but one with an unusual advantage. Since it had patent rights to the MP3 format, it gained royalties from every iPod Apple sold. Strong at Walmart, which still carries the brand online, the RCA Lyra line spanned both hard drive and flash players. Thomson ultimately vacated consumer electronics and the RCA brand for everything but TVs became owned by VOXX International (formerly Audiovox), along with a large collection of other accessory brands.

Toshiba and Philips

Toshiba created the hard drive in the first iPod and the internals for the first Zune, but it had its own line of MP3 players as well called Gigabeat. Despite not selling well in the U.S., they were one of the few hard drive-based players that were thinner than their contemporary iPod rivals. Philips, on the other hand, mostly focused on small flash players with its GoGear series. Like Creative and others, Philips also tried a multimedia player that ran Android, the Philips Connect. But it has left the category, and now the Netherlands-based lighting powerhouse offers Fidelio iOS speaker accessories.

The Pure Plays

SanDisk

The leading flash memory brand was an unlikely contender to be Apple's strongest rival in the U.S., but for a period of time it was just that with the Sansa brand that included a range of original iPod Shuffle-like stick players and video-capable models (that skipped an announced large-screen model called the Sansa View).

SanDisk tried to buid on its momentum in several ways that flopped. Like Microsoft, it developed its own iPod-like dock connector that attracted a speaker dock or two. It also introduced the Sansa Connect, one of the first Wi-Fi-enabled products that was paired with Yahoo!'s music streaming service; it used the Zing software created by former Apple engineer Tim Bucher later purchased and abandoned by Dell.

SanDisk also made an ambitious play in 2009 to revive retail music distribution with slotMusic and the slotRadio music player. Accommodating 1,000 songs preloaded on a microSD card, it was a sort of offline Pandora without the custom channels. A half-dozen or so cards focusing on different music genres were created before SanDisk ended distribution last year. Today, SanDisk remains in the market with its relatively low-end Clip and Fuse lines that maintain the ability to take microSD cards that are a far more important business for the company.

Archos

While it dabbled in flash memory players, Archos was an early believer in portable video with the hard drive-based tank-like Jukebox series, Archos was the most ambitious player in portable video for many years, adding docks to help its players function as GPS units and DVRs. It also created Archos TV, a stationary DVR that could offfload music to the players. These days, the company is mostly focused on a wide range of Android tablets and recently launched into smartphones. However, it has trotted out several offbeat Android products such as an Android-based alarm clock and home phone and a fat handheld keyboard that brings Android to the TV.

iRiver and Cowon

These Korean companies have been known for well-designed players and continue in the market but are rare in the U.S. iRiver, which first gained notoriety for its SlimX MP3-CD player, expanded into e-readers.

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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