What would Jobs do?
There’s no question that a full-screen iPod Video or an iPod with an integrated cell phone sounds cool. And there would be a lot of people who would line up to buy one. However, Steve Jobs isn’t in the industry of producing products that simply sound cool, they have to be cool. The iPod was not the first MP3 market to reach the market, but it has market dominance today for one reason alone: it was the first MP3 player with good usability.
Ease of Use
When the iPod was first released, there were still MP3 players using parallel port transfers or USB 1.0 interfaces. By launching with Firewire, the iPod made syncing the iPod a much more pleasant experience. You could carry 5GB of your music library wherever you went, and when you got a new album, the limiting factor wasn’t going to be the transfer speed. The Nomad Jukebox was using USB 1.0…
Apple’s decision to force people to use iTunes to transfer the music (instead of allowing people to simply copy music over) ended up being on of the best decisions they made. While power-users such as you or I may have preferred directory-based navigation, the iTunes system was important because it made navigation on the iPod faster.
Everyone likes to talk about the scroll-wheel and menu based navigation of the iPod as the secret to the iPod’s success. While this would become an iconic feature, the scroll-wheel itself wasn’t what was special. The secret was the efficiency and speed with which you could navigate. At the time, the nearest competitor was Creative Labs’s Nomad Jukebox. Allow me to quote a few key lines from my Nomad Jukebox review from 2001:
“…there is no way to see all the track titles, or all the titles from a particular genre, or artist in a single [playlist]…”
“…I pressed play and then the Jukebox crashed. Two tries later, I decided that my multitude of MP3s was causing the Jukebox to crash and instead I start adding MP3s to my playlist incrementally. It turns out that the Nomad Jukebox is just very slow, and the unit had not actually crashed.”
“The Nomad Jukebox does not scroll song titles in either view - it just truncates them.”
The iPod also had tremendous battery life: 10 hours. The Nomad Jukebox could only do a meek 4 hours of play. This was due in large part to Apple’s ambitious 32MB of flash memory, four times as much as the Nomad Jukebox had at the time. While this increased the price of the iPod, it made a significant difference in increasing usability. You didn’t have to remember to sync/recharge your iPod every day and you could spend an whole day studying in the library without worrying about running out of batteries.
Finally, the design for the iPod was market defining. It was small, sturdy, and stylish. While the iPod look is not longer as fresh as it once was, it’s truly a testament of what good product design is all about.
Extending the Lead
As the iPod grew in popularity, Apple did not rest. The most important move that Apple since the original launch of the iPod and the development of the USB 2.0 version was integrating iPod support into all major manufacturers. It truly says something when you can find iPod support in virtually all major automotive manufacturers ranging from Scion to Ferrari. The rest is history.
In its current state, it is unlikely that anyone will be able to dethrone the iPod’s market superiority. Since then, companies have developed products that are better looking, have better sound quality, or even better battery life, but we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns for improvements in MP3 usability, and the ecosystem behind the iPod (car integration and accessories) will never be matched by another competitor unless Apple is forced to open up their platform.