CeBIT: The End of the iPod
By Carlo Longino, Thu Mar 10 18:00:00 GMT 2005

There's only one real significant remaining difference between iPods and music phones, and it's significant, but certainly not insurmountable.

Today was supposed to bring Motorola's announcement of its attempt to meld the iPod and the mobile phone into a handset running a special version of iTunes, the supposed "iPod killer" using ammo supplied by Apple. But alas, it was not to be -- evidently the idea that users could buy music and download it to their devices without operators taking a cut didn't sit well with some carriers, and some last-minute phone calls kept the device from being officially announced.

While Moto wasn't able to deliver its music phone, plenty of other companies are showing off both music-centric handsets and devices with music features. But what made the iTunes phone so tasty was it promised to bring the familiar usability of iTunes and the iPod to the mobile phone, a place where it's badly needed.

I've been using an iPod Shuffle recently, and it's been pretty fantastic. It easily syncs with iTunes, and playing randomly chosen songs in random order has been more entertaining (and less annoying) than I imagined. The physical technology in the Shuffle isn't anything that couldn't be added to nearly any mobile handset right now. The last remaining difference, however, is usability in general and the user interface in specific. It's a significant difference, but one that can't be changed. The iPod Shuffle proves this in an interesting way: by essentially not having a user interface.

The temptation for many manufacturers seems to be to put a relatively full-featured media player on a handset, when simplicity would be best, and hide the music functions behind a number of clicks and menus. But the best solution will offer one-touch access to music and external controls for basic features like pause and skip. Vendors should take advantage of the increasing power of mobile platforms and offer users full-featured media players where users can manipulate files and playlists and do other functions, but the primary interface should be a simple play button that quickly fires up the tunes. In the same way that the iPod Shuffle offers a great UI by not having one, mobile phones' music functions should be exceedingly simply and easy to use.

But there are other usability concerns apart from just the user interface. One high-level concern is the compatibility of phones with existing download shops and players. One selling point of the Motorola iTunes phone was that it would be the only phone that could play music from the iTunes Music Store. Plenty of handsets can play AAC files; none yet can handle Apple's DRM. Some devices support WMA files, but not AAC, while some only play MP3s. Some can handle Windows Media DRM, some only support OMA DRM standards. This creates a mess for mobile users, and it can also create problems for handset manufacturers. If a user's got a hard drive full of music using one DRM flavor, why would they buy a phone that can't play it? By picking and choosing what formats to support, vendors are limiting their potential pool of buyers. It's good to see some companies taking this into account, such as Sony Ericsson, which isn't even supporting the much-maligned ATRAC format favored by its Japanese parent in favor of the more widely used MP3 and AAC in its Walkman phone.

There are other places where these closed approaches rear their head too: headphones and memory card formats. There seems to be a fascination with using non-standard headphone jacks, forcing users to ditch their favorite earphones in favor of whatever few choices are available to fit vendors' proprietary connectors. Memory card formats are perhaps even more frustrating. While it's unrealistic to think that manufacturers will all converge on a single format, it's hard to see how embracing so many different formats benefits end users, who are increasingly forced to buy relatively expensive cards that often aren't available in large sizes. Maybe there's some financial benefit to using something unpopular like RS-MMC or Transflash, but in the end, it just annoys users. If manufacturers want to push phones as music players, and they're using removable media, they've got to choose a format that's got cheap, big cards.

The iPod Shuffle isn't any great technological shakes, really. But Apple's laser-like focus on delivering a good user experience based on a solid user interface gives it a leg up on music phones. If manufacturers can manage to crack this, the iPod's days will be numbered.