Thursday, March 23, 2006

Apple’s foray into the PMP market – why it may not be the next iPod.

April 1st marks Apple Computer's 30th anniversary, and being the great showman that he is, Steve Jobs is planning something big – something really big. Most have speculated (and in some sneaky ways, confirmed) the existence of Apple’s next big move: unveiling the 6th Generation iPod. No one really knows for sure what kind of breakthrough features this piece of technology will have. It may drop the whole touchwheel and replace it with full touchscreen capabilities, integrate Bluetooth technology to enable wireless headphones, and last but not least, it may be a full-on Portable Media Player (PMP). Being a PMP, the iPod would be transformed into a true video iPod with a four-inch screen.

Treading into the PMP market would make Apple compete in a totally different sector of the market. Currently reigning PMP champs, Archos and Cowon, would have to ramp things up a bit in order for their products to not be overshadowed by the big marketing campaign of the iPod. Making a PMP is not as cheap as, say, making an MP3 player. The prices of current media players range upwards of 400 dollars for a measly twenty gigabytes of storage; the most expensive video player on the market being the abysmal Archos AV4100 going for close to 800 dollars. Apple would need to keep things cheap if they plan to migrate their faithful consumers over to true video playback. The best-selling iteration of the 5G iPod is the 30Gb version, selling for as low as 250 dollars; dwarfing the sales for the 60Gb version aimed towards hardcore music fans and college students with massive media libraries.

With this much money floating around, we can still assume that many people will go for the iPod based on its elegance and design. The concept art that have been floating around for the 6G iPod are truly outstanding and next-gen in its aesthetic. However, many people will be looking closely at alternatives. What sets Apple apart from these other companies that I’ve never heard of, like Cowon and Archos? Intuitive functionality, iTunes synchronization, easy interface. All well and good, but the market for the PMP is dominated by a different age-set; not your typical teenager or yuppie jogger.

Archos and Cowon have relied on the uber-geek, the technical literati, the audiophiles, and the flippin’ rich between the ages of 20 and 35 to fund their PMP device production. And don’t forget the battery, the Cowon A2, a relatively small form-factor in the PMP business, punches out a whopping 20 hours of audio playback and 10 hours of video playback. These people who buy this kind of thing aren’t afraid to carry around a ‘brick’ in order that they get the best possible video and audio quality. I highly doubt, judging from their past offerings, Apple will support Divx, Xvid, and WMV9 video, WMA, OGG, FLAC, and what not on their players. They would keep to their strict adherence of .m4a and .m4v format. Thus, it is interesting to watch what is happening over in France with their piece of legislation that might open up the iPod and iTunes finally.

What I think will happen is that Apple will release their video iPod PMP to much critical acclaim…but they will not totally abandon their mp3 roots, and still offer newer and updated versions of their 5G iPod. Of course, the iPod nano will still be on the market, and who knows how small they can get that thing to be. If I turn out to be wrong on all this and Apple creates a visually appealing, super futuristic long-lasting Portable Media Player that can play anything I want coupled with superb audio and video quality, then sign me up; I’ll drop 500 clams for one.


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