Plucking the Fruit of iPod Envy


By Charles Haddad Not long ago, I caught one of my college students ogling my iPod. I knew Steve as a rabid PCer: He continually raged against the indignity of having to use Macs in the classroom at Emory University, where I teach a writing course for undergrads. His beef wasn't that Macs didn't work well. He just found them, well, pointless. Why bother with Macs if you can't get the latest twitch-and-shoot game for them?

I could see that my iPod was forcing Steve to reconsider his position, at least for a moment. "You want one, admit it," I said, mercilessly waving my pocket-size white-and-silver MP3 player under his nose. At first, Steve glared at me in defiance, but he quickly broke down. "Yes," he whined, "but does that mean I have to buy a Mac?"

TROJAN APPLE? Good question. For the moment, the answer is yes. And I doubt that more than a handful of PC users would switch to the Mac just to use an iPod. Indeed, iPod envy has yet to drive my Emory student to buy a Mac. Having an iPod isn't worth missing out on the next version of Quake.

Dream with me for a moment, though. What if the iPod did work with PCs? Could it become a Trojan horse that steals inside fortress Windows and wins over diehard PC fans? That's the question on the minds of a lot of Mac thinkers and enthusiasts. It's one well worth asking.

At first glance, it's hard to see how the iPod could miss in the PC market. True, it's neither the smallest nor the cheapest MP3 player. It doesn't even hold the most songs. But the iPod represents a winning compromise between size, power, and capacity.

SPEEDY FEATURES. The latest model, released last week, holds 2,000 songs on a 10-gigabyte hard drive that fits in a shirt pocket. At $500, it's only $100 more expensive than the 5-GB model Apple introduced last Christmas. It uses a lightning-fast fire wire transfer technology, which moves music files 30 times faster than the USB port standard on most PC players.

The iPod also can store any type of digital file, serving as a highly portable hard drive. And Apple has posted a software update on its Web page that enables both iPod models to import addresses and phone numbers from Microsoft Entourage or Palm Desktop.

Despite this strong feature set, iPod faces an uphill battle for acceptance in the PC market. That's not to say it couldn't be done. But success requires two conditions.

The first is flawless connectivity with any PC. It's a tall order, given that even Microsoft struggles to persuade the myriad of PC manufacturers to adopt common standards. Nonetheless, a number of Mac third-party developers are working on software to enable the iPod to work with PCs.

APPLE-TESTED DRIVERS. I haven't tested of any of these efforts, but even so I can see that third-party developers aren't enough. For one thing, only hardy first-adopter types will be willing to search the Internet for downloadable drivers to use an iPod with a PC. And, mark my word, these drivers would be anything but flawless. One would work with a Dell and not a Compaq, and so forth.

That's not good enough. The iPod needs to work with any PC out-of-the-box, so PC drivers would have to be built into the iPod. That means, of course, Apple would have to develop them. The company declines to comment, but the rumor mill says Apple is working on some kind of PC port for its iPod.

The easiest way for Apple to write PC drivers would be in cooperation with Microsoft. Access to Windows code would ensure that Apple's iPod driver would work with just about any PC. But don't count on Microsoft's cooperation here. It's trying to establish its own software as the standard for storing and transferring music files. We all know how respectful Microsoft is with computing and Internet standards other than its own. Just ask Sun Microsystems or RealNetworks.

THE COST CARD. The second obstacle is price. The iPod, with its emphasis on classy design, will never be the cheapest MP3 player. Mac buyers are used to paying a premium, but at $400 to $500 the iPod is just too expensive for the mass market. Few consumer-electronics products win mass acceptance until their price falls below $300.

In short, the iPod could help Apple break out of its market-share cul-de-sac, but only if the company slashes the price and ensures that it works with any PC. It won't be easy, but only then will my college student not just ogle my iPod but actually buy one. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for BusinessWeek, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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