Apple Archive

Why a Flash iPod Makes Sense

- 2004.12.23

The latest rumor around the Mac web is the upcoming release of a flash-based iPod.

Is this actually a good idea for Apple? It seems that other companies are abandoning flash-based MP3 players for larger hard drive based units. This means that the prices on flash-based units have come down.

It seems that companies are now competing to be able to hold as many songs as possible. Sony's Walkman MP3 player is supposed to hold up to 13,000 songs - but that's only if you use Sony's own ATRAC-3 plus format, which samples songs at only 48 kbps. (Apple boasts 10,000 songs on its 40 GB player, with 128 kbps AAC files.)

You can still buy flash-based MP3 players. BenQ offers the Joybee 120 ($107.34 from Amazon.com), which features 256 MB of memory and an FM tuner.

If you can buy an iPod mini for twice the price and have it hold 7-8 times as much music, why wouldn't you do that instead?

First of all, not everyone wants to spend over $200 on an MP3 player. Secondly, there are benefits to not having a hard drive in your MP3 player - dropping one of them with the drive spinning could ruin it.

While the current iPod does switch off the hard drive while it's playing music, it only has 25 minutes of "skip protection." If you're listening to a band such as Dream Theater, who has several 15 minute-or-so songs, you might find the hard drive spinning up again in the middle of the second or third song. If you're running or walking, this might not be the best for the player's hard disk.

I've asked some people that I know why they haven't bought an iPod. Most say that it's just too expensive, but if there was a cheaper one, they'd consider it. The way they see it is that they can get an MP3 CD player for under $100, and that holds a couple hundred songs on one CD, which is good enough for them.

If Apple were to release a flash-based iPod, those people would be Apple's target market. Since these people are looking at $100 MP3 CD players, Apple's flash-based model needs to be cheap enough so that they would consider spending, say, $50-60 more on the flash iPod than on the MP3 CD player.

A lot of people also don't want to buy an unknown brand. That's one reason Sony gets away with charging more for its TV sets and stereo equipment than other manufacturers. It's such a well-known brand that people want to buy their devices even if they do cost more. It's sort of people's way of assuring themselves they bought a good TV set or stereo, with the though, "Well I spent more on it, so it's going to last longer."

Apple's in an ideal position to offer a flash-based player because of their brand image. As I've stated in the past, just like the Honda Civic, Apple's iPod is so well-established that people will buy just about anything that Apple offers as with the iPod name. Apple's already got people wanting iPods - make an entry-level model, and you now include those who don't understand why anyone would want more than 1 GB of music into your list of possible buyers.

Apple also has size to its advantage when marketing a flash-based iPod. A lot of people won't really want to carry around a comparatively large Discman. It needs to be stressed how much smaller and more convenient the iPod is compared to a Discman. Flash-based models can be even smaller than the current hard-disk based iPod mini.

Why clip your music player to your belt when you can stick it in your pocket?

While there are some people who want to carry a lot of songs on one device - myself included - there are some who see spending over $200 on a personal stereo as a bit ridiculous. What's needed to bring these people into the iPod player market is something priced in between the high-end hard drive MP3 players and the larger, cheaper MP3 CD players.

There are also cases where size, as well as the possibility of doing damage to the hard disk, makes them skip the iPod. A flash-based model would address that, too.

In my opinion, there's really not much harm that introducing a flash-based iPod would do to Apple - or those in the market for a small, non-hard drive based MP3 player.

Editor's note: This is the last Apple Archive column of the year. Low End Mac will be closed next week, and new content will resume on January 3, 2005. dk

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