Charles Arthur: The Geek

Can nothing halt the march of the iPod?
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The Independent Online

Celebrity is a natural result of any market for attention. We can only pay attention to a limited number of people; so we focus on those who we find attractive, and who have interesting stuff happening to them. The problem for them then is to stay famous, which the top celebs achieve by arranging for photographers to capture "unguarded" moments.

And so to the iPod, which was by no means the first digital music player; the first MP3 player I used was made by Rio in about 1999, a palm-sized thing with 64MB of flash memory. It seemed immediately superior to antecedents like portable CD players, because of its size, lightness and absence of skips.

I also thought it obvious that such machines would conquer portable music listening. What I got wrong was the timescale. I thought people would immediately snap up these devices, but overlooked the fact that people had first to understand digital music, particularly MP3s, then the idea of carrying it around, and then settle on a model.

MP3 players proliferated in the succeeding years, but made few inroads into the market. Then, in October 2001, Apple launched the iPod, to yawns from most analysts who thought it was a bit pricey. But a strange thing happened. The iPod got celebrity. Musicians, who already used Apples to mix their music, were early adopters. They had them, and a buzz started.

Apple has so far shifted more than 15 million of them. It's spread so far that even George W Bush and the Queen have one. Other makers keep trying, but can't break the stranglehold the iPod has over more than half the market.

The noise level has been cranking up recently about how it's inevitable that Apple will lose its lead. But crowds are both very difficult to get started, and very difficult to stop. It's the drive to celebrity: any market will have one product that gets more attention than the rest, and that draws in more people.

So what's the lesson for rivals like Sony and Samsung, which have repeatedly insisted they will catch up with the iPod? I think it's this: an aspiring actress wouldn't aim to make Nicole Kidman un-famous; she would try to make herself more famous, by winning attention in her own right - not inviting comparisons.

So Apple has the lead for now in digital music players. The question is whether rivals will realise that the best way to win a game is to start a new one. For example, there's plenty of room for portable video devices. But presently, that market is still nascent, like the MP3 player market in 1999. People don't know what they want to watch on the move. Perhaps something short? Sounds like a music video.

And now the bad news for Apple's rivals: Apple is getting ready to start a video store - most probably for music videos. A scary thought for all those competitors. Too scary for some: last month Rio's parent company, Japan's D&M Holdings, threw in the towel. Who's will be next to realise that it's the politics of the catwalk, not the technologist, that will win this one?