Making A Mobile Music Player Is Easy; Making It Good Is Another Story...
By Mike Masnick, Wed Feb 23 00:30:00 GMT 2005

As everyone wonders whether Apple will release an iPhone, there are lots of pretenders to the crown. None of them matter, according to one theory, though, because they're all lacking the right interface.

Convergence between mobile phones and portable music players seems like a no brainer. They're both things that people like to carry everywhere. They both are basically mini-computers. Both involve the use of headsets of some kind -- add a microphone to a regular pair of headsets and it can be used for both. Storage is increasing on handsets anyway, and handset makers are always looking for more ways to keep people using their devices. On top of that, add in the idea of streaming or downloading music over a wireless network to a phone, and it's no wonder that many in the industry see mobile phones and music as a perfect match.

Certainly, many are trying to enter the space. The problem, however, seems to be the same thing that always crops up when "convergence" is the focus: a converged device tends to do each thing it does badly. It may be in one combined unit, but the various tradeoffs often mean that people prefer to have them separated. That's part of the reason smartphones have always been a struggle. Device makers are still trying to come up with the perfect convergence of features that doesn't take away too much from either the phone side or the PDA side.

The same thing may be happening with mobile music as well. Everyone wants to offer it, but it's not clear what combination is going to work. While rumors of Apple's involvement in the space come and go, some are pointing out that Apple won't really get too involved until it can figure out how to make the interface work right. Sure, it has a deal with Motorola, but that's just for the iTunes software, rather than focusing on making the whole phone a music player.

The success of the iPod, in the face of cheaper competition can't just be chalked up to the iPod's good looks and Steve Jobs' hypnotic glare. The interface of the device just works. Something about it just feels right to many users, while something about many other devices just feels confusing. However, simply transferring that interface to a mobile phone isn't that easy. The convergence problem shows up again. How can you fit the nice intuitive dial and a keypad all in one? It might take some creative solutions. It's worth looking at Synaptics, who has been working on turning an ordinary keypad into a touchpad at the same time. It's worth noting, of course, that Synaptics powers the scrollwheel on the iPod. Still, until Apple can figure out the right interface, the iPhones will stay in the imaginations of many Apple fans. The solution doesn't have to come from Apple, of course -- but no other portable music player provider has been able to convince consumers that its interface is any better just yet, so any new provider is going to need to not only prove they can make a better music player interface, but also handle the convergence problem so that the device makes a good handset as well.