Today in Tedium: Some say it was overdue, some lament that it remains a missed opportunity, but the truth of the matter is, the iPod has left us, after years of neglect. The final iPod Touch was released in 2019, four years after the previous model, and essentially as a legacy model for a niche audience of people who don’t want modems in their phone-like devices—think hackers and the parents of young children. It was not what it was upon the device’s general release. But I want to take a step back with today’s Tedium to consider the many, many competitors to the digital music throne that Apple’s legacy device vanquished. There were many. And as the latest entry in my series of obscure things that “didn’t make it” or fell into modern-day obscurity, I’m covering 10. — Ernie @ Tedium
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1. Kane Kramer’s IXI
Device type: A prototype device developed by a serial inventor
Era: Late 1970s through mid-1980s
What if you had the basic idea for a device that could change the world two decades before it was viable, and you took the time to actually file a patent for it? Then you’d be Kane Kramer, a British man who developed the idea for the digital audio player in 1979, when he was just 23 years old.
The device was the size of a credit card, utilized bubble memory (a predecessor of flash memory), and had an LCD screen. It had many of the elements of many later MP3 players—though unlike later MP3 players, it could only hold a single three-and-a-half-minute song due to bubble memory’s limitations. But Kramer struggled to move his prototypes past the idea stage due to business challenges, and when the time came to renew the patent, he simply didn’t have the money.
Years later, Apple basically took advantage of this fact in a lawsuit, citing Kramer’s work as prior art and hiring him as a consultant, which Kramer appreciated. (A lot of publishers overplayed Kane’s role, stating he “invented” the iPod. More correctly, he invented the digital music player.)
2. AT&T FlashPAC digital music player
Device type: A barely-released pre-MP3 music player
In the 1990s, AT&T Labs—better known as the iconic Bell Labs—was working on an effort to develop a way to better deliver audio to people. As a part of these efforts, the organization came up with a number of technologies to help enable this broader goal. One of them was an audio codec, called Perceptual Audio Coder (PAC), which was widely used in telephony and audio applications where networking was used. (Notably, outside of telephones, PAC was used as the audio codec for Sirius satellite radio.)
As a part of these efforts came FlashPAC, one of the first audio players to hit the market (though, like the AT&T-branded EO Personal Communicator, not at any real scale). Supporting PCMCIA Flash cards, the device utilized a specialized processor called Euphony a MIPS-based device that was designed to handle audio processing and networking.
In the world of music PAC was overshadowed by another audio format that’s still in use today, AAC, but its innovations deeply influenced other audio formats, along with later forms of streaming audio. And while FlashPAC was a bit of a flash-in-the-pan (sorry), it was important formative thinking at the time.
Lazy Game Reviews did a review of this device a few years back.
3. Audible MobilePlayer
Device type: A pre-MP3 audio player, focused on audiobooks
These days, Audible is a fundamental part of Amazon’s book empire, but it actually launched what was arguably the first successful digital audio player, albeit on a smaller scale, by focusing on an area of the market that wouldn’t upset the music industry—audiobooks.
The $200 audio player, which was a major part of the original Audible model, likely proved not only the value of digital audio players in general, but created a path forward for text-based audio formats. That would prove an important market years later, to Audible’s great benefit. (That said, selling 3,000 units in a year might seem like small potatoes today, but those 3,000 people were all spending $20 a month on content, on average, so not nothing!)
The fast-moving digital audio player space, mixed with market volatility and corporate challenges (the company’s CEO died in 1999, a notable setback) eventually led Audible to get out of he hardware market. After a second, cheaper, attempt called Otis in 2001, the company basically ceded the market to companies like Apple. (No problem—the players were really a way to sell folks on the audiobooks anyway.)
4. Audio Highway Listen Up Player
Device type: A pre-MP3 audio player
Era: Late 1990s
It was not guaranteed that the model we would end up using to download music onto devices would look like a standard MP3 player. Instead, some of the earliest models—both Audible and this early non-MP3 entrant into the digital music sweepstakes—kinda looked like Spotify or Pandora. In the case of this device, definitely the free tier of those services.
In a 2012 retrospective, New Scientist contributor Jacob Aron nailed this device’s many problems compared to an iPod with a single paragraph: “Imagine a portable music player that holds just a single hour of content, interrupts your listening with 30-second advertisements, and whose store offers none of your favorite songs. And all this could be yours for the bargain price of $299.”
(One thing it had going in its favor, though? Longevity: Per AudioWorld, it could run on two AAA batteries for a gobsmacking three months.)
However, despite early industry interest, including awards at CES and enthusiastic press, the devices disappeared and effectively went nowhere, allowing the iPod to come in and dominate.
5. Diamond Rio PMP300
Device type: A pioneering MP3 player
Era: Late 1990s
When people think of the first MP3 player, this is usually the one they think of, and though there is prior art on the MP3 player front (the MpMan, a device first mass produced in South Korea, beat it to market by six months), this is the one that people remember. An early user of flash storage in a consumer product, it was very much of its time, utilizing a proprietary port rather than the then-uncommon and slow USB, and utilizing the long-forgotten SmartMedia flash memory format
But Diamond Multimedia had a reputation in the tech industry in the U.S., having been one of the major players in video cards during this period. That was enough for the Recording Industry Association of America to sue—and for a judge to blow a massive hole through the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act by finding it was not a home recording device. That made room for portable MP3 players in general—like the iPod.
Diamond fought in court so the iPod could eventually eat its lunch.
6. Archos Jukebox Series
Device type: A line of early MP3 and video players
Era: Early 2000s
If Apple sold a device that could fit a thousand songs in your pocket, Archos sold Swiss Army knives in comparison, with an array of devices that, while not exactly elegant, got to many of the innovations of the iPod years before Apple.
It started with the Jukebox 6000, a hard drive-based audio player that beat the iPod to market by about a year. The French company moved fast and within just a few years had developed players with built-in video playback on small screens, and later big ones. These were not cheap devices—the Archos Video AV320, which had a full-screen video player, cost $570 upon release—and that gave competitors an opening to eventually undercut it.
I admit there was a time I looked longingly at the Archos devices in flyers for Best Buy and other tech stores, in part because it offered a lot of functionality that it took the iPhone years to get. Why did this lose? The simple answer likely has a lot to do with the fact that the company never had any of Apple’s style and design—the rubber bumpers on some of the jukebox models stood out like a sore thumb, as did the Jukebox 6000’s design which was clearly built to account for AA batteries. We expect our music players to be as stylish as they are functional.
(One notable point about the Archos line is that it supports Rockbox, the same alternative operating system that the early iPod models did.)
7. Creative ZEN
Device type: A direct iPod competitor
Era: Mid-to-late 2000s
You know the line, the one to be written on Slashdot founder Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda’s tombstone: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.”
The Nomad, while a formative player in the MP3 space, was ultimately not the line that Creative put all of its energy into to take on the iPod (though it gave Apple plenty of fodder to compete against). That was the ZEN line of portable music players, which it sold through the mid-2000s with the goal of beating Apple, complete with a $100 million marketing campaign.
“So I think the whole industry will just laugh at it, because the flash people—it’s worse than the cheapest Chinese player,” he said upon the release of the iPod Shuffle in 2005. “Even the cheap, cheap Chinese brand today has display and has FM.”
But even after throwing lots of marketing behind the ZEN line, it ultimately could not topple Apple (though the blow was softened after Apple paid Creative a $100 million legal settlement). Sim Wong Hoo eventually made peace with Apple—upon the death of Steve Jobs, he took out a full-page ad in Singapore’s largest newspaper honoring the Apple cofounder, who his company lost to in the market.
8. Microsoft Zune
Device type: A direct iPod competitor
Era: Late 2000s to early 2010s
What can brown do for you? In the case of the Zune, it was one of the initial device’s primary colors, a strange choice for a player trying to compete with the polycarbonate and candy-colored hues of the iPod line. But the chocolate-colored hue became one of the biggest jokes about the device, despite the device having a lot of elements that might have made the device attractive to buyers, such as a screen large enough that you’d actually want to watch video on it.
Initially managed by Xbox 360 mastermind J Allard, the line struggled in comparison to the iPod and even SanDisk’s Sansa and Creative’s ZEN; the iPod leapfrogged during the period the Zune was just getting its wings.
But a surprising thing happened with the Zune, even if it was ultimately doomed: By the end of its life, Microsoft had become quite good at making Zune players, with the touch-based Zune HD, first released in 2009, ultimately gaining strong reviews (both then and now) for its approach, its interface and its early-adopter OLED screen.
The problem was, they called it a Zune, which likely sank the device in the market.
9. SanDisk slotMusic Player
Device type: A line of post-iPod MP3 players, complete with semi-proprietary format
Era: Late 2000s
SanDisk is by no means a market failure on the MP3 player sales front, and even still sells the devices today. Unlike Creative, the company took a more barebones approach to its players and ultimately found success with that.
But it tried a weird experiment in the late 2000s that is worth noting in a list like this. Simply put, the company attempted to sell albums in a microSD format—a format that the company was instrumental in helping to bring to market as one of the primary developers of modern flash memory.
The strategy, called slotMusic, was ultimately short-lived, but seemed to be something of a bridge format for people who weren’t quite ready for computers. At least that’s how CNET put it: “The aim behind SanDisk’s idea is to ease the transition from CD to MP3 for those who have been hesitant to go digital.”
(The format itself was not particularly DRM-laden, which was nice—you were essentially buying albums in a raw MP3 format.)
The result is that Sandisk made perhaps the last distinct physical format for music-based media, and did so well into the iPod revolution. (It even followed up the idea with a questionable decision to make something called slotRadio, which essentially prepackaged a thousand DRM-laden songs onto an MP3 player. That thing’s fatal flaw? No back button.)
Check out the video above, from Techmoan, to learn more about this odd format.
10. Pono Player
Device type: A post-iPod audio player, with a focus on high audio quality above all else
Era: Mid 2010s
What can you say about Neil Young’s attempt to sell a high-resolution audio player that hasn’t already been said? It was in some ways a vanity project by a creator who had earned the right to do vanity projects.
(One plus side of this is that, because Young had put in the legwork to distribute music in high-resolution audio formats, it allowed him to leave Spotify relatively painlessly. He had his own archive site, after all.)
While the device, the only Kickstarter-driven device on this list, was ultimately well-reviewed (if met skeptically by some who didn’t see it as necessary), it failed to ignite the market towards higher-quality digital players. When these devices show up on eBay, they sell for hundreds of dollars, even used.
In its wake, however, a cottage market of high-end DAC-quality audio players have emerged, such as those made by FiiO and HiBy. These devices did a better job of carrying the iPod’s torch into the modern day than the iPod Touch ever did.
If you ask me, I don’t think the iPod needed to die on the vine like it did. But in a way, it was always meant to be a Trojan horse for Apple—which meant that when the Trojan horse strategy succeeded, they would eventually leave it behind. Steve Jobs laid out the entire game in his introductory speech for the iPod in 2001:
A thought occurred to us late last year that the devices don’t know anything about the iApps. There’s never been a device that’s been built that can take advantage of all this amazing intelligence built into these apps running on a Mac.
What if there was? What if somebody built a device that could take advantage of it, knowing all about those iApps, and get a level of integration no one’s ever achieved before? And we decided to do it.
And the field we decided to do it in, the choice we made, was music. Now, why music? Well, we love music, and it’s always good to do something you love.
More importantly, music’s a part of everyone’s life. Everyone. Music’s been around forever, it will always be around. This is not a speculative market.
While having a deep admiration for music, obviously, the goal was right there—it was a way to highlight all the other things Apple did well to a large group of people. Apple did that, and the some.
It doesn’t need the iPod anymore—not when you can put basically your entire life in your pocket.
But we, as a culture, could still use it. It’s way too easy to get distracted by a device that can do literally everything.
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