03 October 2005


(Warning: 250 word limit about to be breached)

This is a hot topic currently. While there are 2 aspects of convergence talked about frequently - convergence of television and pc in the home, and convergence of mobile phone and music player - I am going to address here just the latter. According to some this spells the beginning of the end of the iPod phenomenon. That's important to many of us who hope Apple thrives as competition to the Redmond monopoly. Apple's financial performance (and public persona) is now heavily dependent upon the success of the iPod brand.

Previous convergences in this area have been predicted, contradicted, but ultimately by-and-large happened - and in favour of the phone. I refer to PDA's and secondly to cameras. Sales in each of these categories has dropped dramatically. Logically, people look at the iPod/MP3 player as the next victim to be subsumed within the functionality of the mobile phone. Charles Arthur is a recent convert to this cause - though he is wisely not predicting it overnight.

I have to say that I thought that camera convergence wasn't going to happen. But it clearly has. People will still buy digital cameras - for holidays, serious photographic moments etc. But they now find their phone good enough for many other situations. And the phones are getting better and better, eliminating the weaknesses one by one until they are every bit as good as a digital camera. And let's face it, today's digital cameras are as good as most people ever need for most times. Even if people will still have a digital camera, they'll use it less and less (I certainly do despite having just a 1.2MP phone), and at best the replacement cycle will elongate significantly. At worst, the market will be decimated leaving just the high and low ends.

On PDA's I was less certain. I have never found a PDA as useful as I think they are going to be. So they have generally lain unused. The smartphones that are now around (though you could argue that some are PDA's first and phones second) are now very very good indeed for most functions that the PDA was used for.

So, it's quite obvious that music players are next in line for this treatment. Or is it?

Among Charles argument's are that the average player has just 375 songs on it. However, further inspection notes that many of the players in the survey would be incapable of playing more than 100 or 200 songs. But even so the average iPod user (including 512MB and 1GB shuffle users) had around 500 songs. Not much really. But it's probably true that if you gave users a free vote here, they would elect for more capacity. And, while not wanting to fill it to the brim (I like to keep some space for all sorts of different things), I suspect most users below the top 20% would consider 1,000 songs to be a comfortable limit. But actually, even this is within a phone's limit (and one or two phones such as next year's Nokia N91(?) will have a hard disk included for greater capacity). So, on this argument, whether you set the limit at 250, 500, 1,000 the phones are not disadvantaged. Charles, you're right on this.

But let's look at a few other things. Charles doesn't really address usability and usage too much, which is strange because I think he's been quite big on this in the past - especially usability. He is taking the view about something being good enough that people will elect to have two functions combined in one device, rather than separate devices. My take on this differs slightly.

I would maintain that the iPod only became a phenomenon because of the convergence of several technology trends combined with clever design of the user experience. Those trends are as follows:
1. Tiny hard disks allowing storage of multiple MB and low power
2. Low power but sophisticated chips to process the data and handle audio
3. High-speed connections (Firewire first and USB 2.0 later). I think this is often underestimated. 5GB players for PC's were massively hamstrung by requiring in excess of 12 hours to download songs. The first iPods could be filled in just 15 minutes - and updated in seconds. The first pc iPods required Firewire which limited the population. Only when USB 2.0 support came out did the iPod really invade the Windows world.
Combined with the clever design of the hardware (including scrollwheel navigation) AND the integration with iTunes, we had a unique experience that could be easily understood by the average Joe without recourse to a manual.

Well of course all these technologies are available in a mobile phone package too, so there's no disadvantage there. And, we've seen what it takes to make a successful mp3 player, and so if we boil that down into a mobile phone package, then we'll have success, right? But what about usage, and what about usability? Let's look at the user experience part in terms of usage (how, when it's used) and usability (how easy it is to use).

One difference with a convergent device is that it has to do MULTIPLE things, and if not do them brilliantly (eg cameraphone) do them well enough that people will consider it as either a partial or (eventually) a complete replacement. Now using a phone is quite event-driven. You need to make a call, or to answer a call. Or you need to send a message or view a message. They are discrete events. When completed it's back in your pocket. Likewise, taking a photograph. Have you ever needed to take a photo of something while on the phone (ok, so they show this sort of thing in the ads - but really)? Again, the usage is for the most part discrete. Similarly for PDA functions - address lookup etc. So, you can essentially have your device switch modes for these functions.

With music, it's not so much a discrete event as a continual experience. With current technology you would have to leave music mode to use any other key function. Now that may make sense with a voice call, but it makes less sense with a text message, or surfing the web, or perhaps taking a photo. I think there is a lot of design still to do to make a music player on a phone adequately usable as a phone/text device/camera AND mp3 player (and this assumes the underlying technology can multitask well).

Another aspect of usage is when it actually gets used. With discrete events like phone calls and photos which typically take place at different times, one device can be used (modal is ok). But let's look at when people use their mp3 players. They may be down the gym; they may be in the car; they may be in a plane; they may be at home with it plugged into the stereo. I would bet that these activities count for more than half of mp3 player usage. And the phone in those situations is actually not that useful. I wouldn't want my phone at the gym, and I wouldn't be able to exercise for the duration with a phone in my pocket or around my next. I wouldn't be allowed to use a phone in a plane (though that might change); When I'm in the car, I can't use my phone, but if I did, perhaps my passenger would answer it, and meanwhile, I wouldn't want it disconnected from my stereo (though I might want the stereo to mute); And at home, most people don't want to stick their phone in a docking device to play through the stereo. What would they do when it rings - pick it out of the cradle?

Then there is the usability angle. Well, by now we should know how to do this shouldn't we? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Key to a successful music player - even one with a few hundred tracks is easy navigation. And that has not yet been incorporated into a phone (strange perhaps, as large contact lists could benefit from such navigation). Essentially the phone has been very key-based, whereas the best music players have done clever things with very few buttons. And also, let's not forget the PC interface and back-up. While it sounds exciting to have music downloaded to the phone, this will leave the user more exposed than the PC method. Sure, you could sync a phone easily, but the phone isn't really going to win out over a separate device in this area (and currently, the phones fall down in this area).

Personally I think these 3 issues - how, when and how easily it's used - are enough to create a barrier to convergence in the short term. I'm not saying they won't get solved, but I don't think they're that well understood yet (people still can't agree why the iPod was successful can they?). Sure there can be compelling reasons for a merged device. And, if the future was between full sized iPods or even iPod minis and phones, then I would come down on the phone being the primary device "good enough" for most. But here's where I think Apple has been clever, and given the separate mp3 player a couple more years in the clear. By re-inventing the mini as a device that is about 1/4 the size of the mini and more robust (please don't argue the screen issue here!), they have made the issue of the music player competing with a phone for pocket/handbag space a non-issue. That was never done by the camera or PDA manufacturers. The nano has enough storage for 80%+ of users (and the other 20% would not be able to get away with a phone anyway). It has enough juice for a few days of normal activity (we haven't dealt with phone batteries here, but they are getting worse not better imho). And it is a first class music player that works beautifully with your pc. Use it at the gym around your neck, use it in the car, use it at home. Your music is there. That's all, nothing more. If it takes almost zero space, then why not take it with you as well as your phone of choice? That's an argument used by Jupiter Research analyst David Card recently - How iPod nano resets the bar. On the other hand, phones seem to be getting bigger. Sure, they're getting more functionality too, but everytime you converge with some device, there is definitely SOME additional size, to say nothing of the power drain.

And, I think that is why the iPod's got more life in it yet. Personally, for me the convergent device would be either one that physically docked into my phone (primarily the storage part only?) so could be used as one when I needed it, but could also be separated to give me the separate functions when I wanted just one. Or, if the devices didn't physically connect, that they could be aware of each other - for instance both talking via the same bluetooth headset, muting the player when a call came in, yet allowing you to use the phone for surfing/texting etc while still using the music player.

I really don't think it was a coincidence that the nano and the ROKR were announced on the same day, and it is interesting to see which has garnered the critical acclaim. Even if some of the ROKR's deficiencies were not there, I think the reaction would still have been similar. I'm not saying these devices won't converge, but I think it's not going to be as quick as people think. Whatever the public statements of Apple, I think they know that convergence will happen, and that's why the experience with Motorola will be a learning one. But with the nano, they've given themselves more breathing room.

To finish, I'd just like to ask one more question. Is it the phone that has to be dominant this time around? And could that be the problem that holds it back? If the designers think about the bigger problem - one of a hand-held communicator and personal storage box, then the phone's functions are not necessarily the most important. Maybe the phone will gobble up the music player, but perhaps there's something that'll come along to gobble up the phone too?

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