There are an awful lot of consumer electronics companies that would like to make a music device that won’t get crushed by the shiny white jackboot of the 74% market share of Apple’s iPod. So far, these companies have attempted this by lining up to create yet another silver, black, or grey piece of junk. By doing so, they efficiently miss the point; stop trying to reinvent the iPod — which has actually been invented — and instead attempt to innovate in areas where the iPod has not:
- Make it open. I shouldn’t have to worry about what file format a song is in, be it mp3, acc, flac, shorten, ogg, whatever. I’m not talking here about closed Digital Rights Management-encumbered formats like Windows Media and iTunes Music Store songs, but if it’s an open music file format, a digital music player should play it. The iPod got this right at first with the adoption of mp3, but of late has fallen way behind in support of open standards.
- Make it friendly. I should be able to hook up with someone who has another of these devices — or any device that conforms to the USB mass storage spec — and swap songs with them without third-party software.
- Make it social. I should be able to hear what’s on other devices near me and I should be able to know whose device I’m listening to. On the other end, I should be able to know who’s listening to my device — it should buzz and glow like a cell phone when anyone “downloads” a song. This turns the gizmo from a simple music jukebox to a social, matchmaking tool. If that doesn’t sound compelling to you, well, myspace.com was* a piece of crap, but kids liked it because it combined music and hooking up.
- Make it ostentatious. One word: ringtones. They are dumb as hell and people love them, because it allows them to publicly customize their world a little bit — generally, customize it with stupid, but that’s another story. The issue with the iPod is that it doesn’t have a little speaker, so all sharing has to be headphone related. No offense, but unless I really really like you I don’t want to put your earbud headphones in my ears, nor do you probably want my earbud headphones in your ears. A little, tiny, totally cruddy speaker would at least make some degree of ambient media sharing possible.
* I’ve written that sentence in the past tense because if myspace.com is around and in any way popular in one year from now, I’ll eat my shoe. SEE: Friendster, Orkut, etc.