iPod-Windows link getting stronger

As software maker MediaFour readies to launch its Windows-to-iPod software, a Needham analyst says Apple won't be far behind with its own.

Software maker MediaFour plans to release on Monday its XPlay program, the company's first Windows application for connecting PCs with Apple Computer's iPod digital music player.

But Apple may be close behind with its own Windows-to-iPod software, Needham analyst Charles Wolf wrote in a Friday research note. Wolf said the release of Windows syncing software could boost the iPod to 10 percent of the portable digital music player market.

Windows software developers have been rushing to fill a void that Apple left when it unveiled the iPod last October. The shirt-pocket-size digital music player is built around a 5GB hard drive and can hold more than 1,000 MP3s encoded at a 160-kilobits-per-second bit rate.

Apple released a 10GB iPod with a 2,000-song capacity in March. The 5GB iPod sells for $399 and the 10GB device for $100 more.

"As soon as iPod came out, there were already third-party developers trying to port it over to a Windows environment, and it's good in a sense because of increased sales to Windows users," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "It's good in the short term. But the overall objective of the iPod was to create additional value in switching to a Mac. That's good for marketing and bolstering the Mac's position."

West Des Moines, Iowa-based MediaFour is rushing ahead of most software developers trying to get a finished product out the door. Most Windows-to-iPod utilities are in the beta, or testing, phase.

Competitor TrentSoft makes EphPod, free software with similar features. But to make the most use of EphPod, iPod owners must buy MacOpener from software maker DataViz for $50.

MediaFour will release the final version of XPlay on Monday at the TechXNY trade show (formerly PC Expo) in New York. XPlay will sell for $29.95. The software allows iPod owners to manage songs on their PC or transfer them to the device. They can use either the provided XPlay interface or Windows Media Player for Windows XP.

"Certainly (MediaFour) thinks there's a good market there, and more power to them," said Greg Joswiak, Apple's senior director of hardware product marketing. They've been working on this product for a while, doing their previews to get the product right, and they obviously think there is a market there. That's hard to argue with."

Boosting sales
The release of Windows syncing software could mean a big boost in sales for Apple, Needham's Wolf wrote.

"Based on a reasonable assessment of demand, the iPod could capture about 10 percent of the portable music player market," Wolf concluded. He said that the projections of 10 percent market share in 2003 translate to $115 million in earnings and sales of $650 million.

Apple has yet to commit to releasing software for syncing iPod to Windows PCs. Right now, the company offers syncing and managing of songs only through its iTunes digital music software for Macs. But that could change as early as next month.

"We confirmed just this week...that Apple will also introduce a product that ports the iPod to Windows this summer, possibly as early as Macworld New York on July 17," Wolf wrote. "We have no details on the product. But given Apple's attention to design and ease-of-use, we think it will be a turnkey product that just works when it's plugged into a FireWire port."

Apple's Joswiak wouldn't say whether the company planned a Windows-to-iPod utility.

"When we introduced the product, we said we would consider a Windows version--that we hadn't closed the door on it," he said. "We've remained noncommittal on it, and that hasn't changed one iota since we introduced the product in October. We're not saying no, and we're not saying yes."

But Joswiak acknowledged that the potential sales from the larger Windows market could not be ignored, even considering that the iPod generates sales of new Macs.

"Clearly it's not a black-and-white situation. We know that the iPod is symbolic of what's right with the Mac...to create an experience that cannot be matched on the Windows PCs. So that's leading people more than ever to either consider Mac or, more important to us, switch to Mac.

But offering Windows versions of software for Mac-only products is not without precedent. Apple, for example, offers a Windows utility for managing AirPort 802.11b wireless base stations.

"I think third-party developers are going to be unable to fully re-create the user experience--the ease of use and the stability of the Mac platform," Technology Business Research's Deal said. "So what users are going to get is something that will work in the Windows environment, but it will be a cheap replica of the user experience on the Mac."

Copycats on the prowl
Developer interest in iPod extends beyond music. Because the device also can be used as a portable hard drive, software companies have been creating other types of applications for it, such as programs for storing contact lists.

Part of iPod's appeal is its small size, but another selling point is the speed at which songs can be transferred from a computer to the device. Unlike other portable music players, which use USB 1.1, iPod connects using FireWire. USB 1.1 transfers data at 12 megabits per second compared with FireWire's 400mbps. The difference amounts to seconds versus minutes when transferring songs to an iPod.

Competitors have taken note of iPod's small size and convenience and have started bringing similar Windows-based products to market. Toshiba plans to release an iPod-like music player, the Gigabeat MEG50JS, in Japan on Saturday. Like the original iPod, the Gigabeat uses a 5GB hard drive, but it connects to PCs using USB 2.0. That means a faster transfer rate than FireWire, as USB 2.0 moves data at a maximum rate of 480mbps.

But Stan Ng, Apple's product manager for iPod, noted an important advantage of FireWire over USB 2.0.

"FireWire isn't just for the benefits of fast transfer," Ng said. "It's also the fact you can plug your iPod into your Macintosh and not only transfer but charge at the same time."

Because FireWire is capable of powering a device, Apple chose to use the connectivity option as a way of recharging iPod's battery. USB 2.0 can't do this.

"You have one cable doing everything at the same time, which makes it simpler and more elegant for our customers," Ng said.

Although the Gigabeat bears some similarity to the iPod, differences abound. Toshiba's player uses removable PC card-size hard drives that, while removable, are slower than the type used in the iPod. Gigabeat is also bigger than Apple's music player.

"From a portability standpoint, the iPod is still smaller and lighter than this other device," Ng said.

News.com's Ian Fried contributed to this report.

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