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Guardian UK Doesn't Understand the iPod

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Once again, we find ourselves on the eve of another potential unveiling of a new Apple product -- or, at the very least, an incremental upgrade to an existing one. With his routine seasonal timing and suggestive promotional artwork, Steve Jobs is expected to introduce an update to his iPod line and possibly launch some new features in iTunes. Rumors of a new Apple TV have made the rounds, but unless the company has scrapped everything it's done and built a new product from scratch, there's little to get excited about.

With iPods on the brain, news outlets are assessing the current state of the ballyhooed media player. The Guardian UK's Charles Arthur, for example, takes a look at the device's sales plateau in recent months and notes that only nine million units were sold in the quarter ending in June -- the lowest quarterly number since 2006. Yes, nine million is nothing to sneeze at, but for the Apple bestseller, it indicates that crowds are no longer clamoring for an iPhone that can't make calls any more than the other one.

While many analysts would chalk that up to market saturation, a lack of revolutionary features, and well, more people are listening to MP3s on their smartphones, Arthur believes it's just that digital music isn't the runaway hit as previously thought. He writes:

"The music industry had looked to the iPod to drive people to buy music in download form, whether from Apple's iTunes music store, eMusic, Napster or from newer competitors such as Amazon. The problem for them is that digital music sales are only growing as fast as those of Apple's devices -– and as the stand-alone digital music player starts to die off, people may lose interest in buying songs from digital stores."

So forget the fact that iPods are just one brand of media player, not the only device on which MP3s may be played, and many users who bought one aren't ready to buy another. Arthur knows that flagging iPod sales means shuttered online digital retailers. Why? Because digital music took off around the same time as the iPod did. And as Arthur writes, "But as iPod sales slow, digital music sales, which have been yoked to the device, are likely to slow too."

At this point, any correlation between digital music sales and how many iPods leap off the racks is largely circumstantial. Any time you pick up an iPhone, hold an Android device, drive a Ford Focus, or play a wide variety of handheld game consoles, you're using an MP3 player. And while Arthur may think that people enjoy carrying as many electronic devices as possible, folks tend to prefer less bulk in their pockets. For many, a smartphone or PSP is a suped-up MP3 player.

That isn't to say the music industry isn't in trouble. It's doomed, in fact.

While reading Arthur's article, as he went on about iPod sales deciding the music industry's fate, I felt like Kevin McDonald in The Kids in the Hall "Citizen Kane" sketch. "Piracy. Mention piracy. It's piracy. Piracy. Easier to download albums now. Piracy." It's not until the very end does Arthur mention piracy as a deciding factor in digital music sales. Given the prevalence of BitTorrent trackers and MP3 blogs, as well as the feeling of being fleeced by the record industry for decades, people are turning to less than legal methods to get their music. The novelty of a new iPod may have ushered many newbies to the iTunes store to replenish their music library, those same users have been clued in to Pirate Bay and BTJunkie.

Arthur ends his piece with:

"It may be premature to predict the death of the iPod just yet too –- but it's unlikely that even Steve Jobs will be able to produce anything that will revive it. And that means that little more than five years after the music industry thought it had found a saviour in the little device, it is having to look around again for a new stepping stone to growth -– if, that is, one exists."

Yes, you're absolutely right, Charlie. Touchscreens and downloadable apps are the extent of what can be done with digital music players.

We haven't even begun to fully explore complete streaming media libraries, unlimited content selection, online storage, fully shared media, etc. The best technology, the stuff that can actually revive the personal media players, is being hampered by legal issues and copyrights. By whom, you ask. Record labels.

Every year that the record industry fails to innovate and hamstrings unique products capable of exciting technology, it will continue to be its own worst enemy.

Not an outdated iPod.
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