Apple Computer made perhaps the single biggest advancement in portable MP3 technology last year with its introduction of the Apple iPod. Although the idea of a portable hard drive-based MP3 player was not really a new concept, as several other companies were marketing products of this type, it took Apple to get it right. With its sleek and sexy design, and its 5GB of hard drive space, the Apple iPod has redefined the portable, hard drive-based MP3 player product space, at least for the time being.
The Apple iPod would have been my choice as product of the year for 2001. Much of the reason for this is that Apple did a lot of things right with the iPod. Getting things right is what differentiates ordinary products from extraordinary ones. The iPod offers a very slim form factor, an easy to learn user interface, recharging and downloads via it's fast 1394 Firewire connection, rechargeable lithium polymer batteries with ten hours of continuous playtime, great sounding ear buds, and even a contact manager that rivals some PDA devices.
The iPod opened a lot of eyes and minds to the idea that technology needs to be not just functional but also 'sexy' in order to achieve the "I gotta have it" buzz that fuels retail demand and sales. If Apple can be faulted for anything with the iPod, it is that they opted not to offer it with a Windows interface, and without this interface feature, the iPod is expensive. Although Apple has not closed the door on the possible release of Windows-based connection software at some point in the future, an entire 'cottage industry' has sprung up nearly overnight in a race to release compatible software that allows Windows users use of the iPod on their systems.
Apple's failure to offer native, out of the box Windows compatibility, as well as the iPod's steep retail price, has left two costly cracks in Apple's lock on the market. These two drawbacks are being capitalized upon by a number of companies attempting to cash in on the iPod's buzz appeal with the release of new hard drive players that both cost less than the iPod and offer the user native Windows compatibility.
Only time will tell if Apple will realize that the iPod is a device that should be enjoyed by all at a more affordable retail price. I think the iPod has sufficiently strong appeal that Apple could actually use the iPod as a bridge to get more PC users interested in Apple products; for the moment, though, this is not the case. In the interim and until that happens, many users will seek out other brand name solutions that directly support Windows and that cost half as much as the Apple iPod. The Apple iPod is the stick by which many of these new hard drive-based MP3 players will be measured. It is unfortunate that Apple hasn't yet realized this.