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iPod vs. Cell Phones, Part Two

Any product that becomes too successful for too long attracts the ire of technology and business journalists. It’s understandable, since journalism is about the news, and the news is about change, and a market dominated by a single, highly popular…
April 18, 2005

Any product that becomes too successful for too long attracts the ire of technology and business journalists. It’s understandable, since journalism is about the news, and the news is about change, and a market dominated by a single, highly popular product doesn’t change much. But it’s unfortunate when journalists let their thirst for novelty, controversy, and competition bias their picture of reality.

That’s what seems to be happening lately with the Apple iPod. A few days ago I posted a rebuttal to a Wall Street Journal article that argued that the iPod could be pushed aside by cell phones that double as music players. Then this week’s issue of Business Week arrived, and darned if there isn’t a special report titled “iPod Killers?”, featuring MP3-playing smart phones such as the Samsung SGH-I300, the SonyEricsson W800 Walkman, the Motorola E680I, and the Nokia 7710. As BW quotes Jordan Shure, co-president of Geffen Records: “You don’t have to be a genius to see that the phone will be your own portable stereo that’s with you wherever you go.”

He’s right, you don’t have to be a genius–you have to be a dunce. I don’t find BW’s article any more persuasive than the Journal’s. In fact, to my previous list of reasons why phones will never replace dedicated music players like the iPod, add these:

There’s no good way to download music to a cell phone. Even today’s fastest cellular data networks, like SpintPCS, operate at pokey speeds far closer to a 56K modem than to DSL. My bet is that it takes longer to download a single song over-the-air than to listen to it on the radio. The iPod solution, of course, is to download songs via a broadband Internet connection to iTunes on your PC, then transfer them to the portable player via Firewire. iPod owners don’t complain about the two-step process. In fact, iTunes is such a cool application that it’s fun to use. But nobody is accustomed to hooking up their cell phone to a PC, unless they have a PocketPC phone or a PalmOS device like the Treo. That level of complexity, in fact, defeats the purpose of a cell phone, which is fundamentally a communications device, not a computing device.

Volume doesn’t mean much. The #1 reason advanced by journalists for the iPod’s imminent demise is that cell phones far outnumber iPods. (BW estimates that by 2008 there will be almost a billion cell phones in circulation, more than a third of which will store and play music, while iPods won’t even break the 100 million mark.) So what? There are far more Windows computers on the planet than Macs, but no one expects Apple fanatics to give up their PowerBooks, iBooks, and G5s. If you do a certain type of computing–especially design or media production–you have to have a Mac. And that’s how Apple has always stayed in business–by targeting a niche of devoted users.

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