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Culture

Moving beyond the iPod

The iPod blazed a trail, but MediaNet Digital CEO Alan McGlade asks how much longer Apple's closed-technology approach can last.

    Apple's unveiling of the Macintosh nearly a quarter century ago heralded a new era of computing.

    The Mac was the first computer to use a graphical user interface and a mouse. It was the computer for the masses that didn't want to bother with command line interfaces and balky hardware.

    The computer was finally a completely self-contained package, and as an added benefit was an attractive piece of hardware, even when it wasn't turned on.

    Few can doubt that personal computing would have charted a different future without the Macintosh. Yet, as things turned out, within six years the Mac would see a steady decline in sales following the introduction of Windows 3.0 and the desire among computer users to work outside of the Mac's confinements.

    Today's legions of tech-savvy music listeners are not likely to accept the company's shackles for long.

    Where once consumers found the Mac's turnkey simplicity reassuring, they now hungered for additional hardware which, quite literally, didn't fit inside the box Apple provided. This luxury was standard on the competing IBM-compatible platform, allowing users to add their own hardware and software with ease.

    As a trailblazer, the Macintosh was a milestone in the development of home computing, and by extension, the Internet. The Mac also earned a pedestal in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art for its design aesthetic. The sustaining elements of the computing revolution weren't unique to Apple--the company merely made those elements more attractive.

    Nearly a generation later, Apple is once again trying to create a totally controlled, self-contained environment--this time not for computers, but for music and entertainment. However, the market served with Apple's iPod devices is far more digitally sophisticated than those early computer users. And today's legions of tech-savvy music listeners are not likely to accept the company's shackles for long.

    Despite popular conception, Apple did not invent the digital portable music player. What Apple did was take a product that was slowly working itself into the hands of willing consumers and make it sexy. In addition to making the product attractive to consumers, Apple was able to sell the concept of portable digital music, just as it had with home computing decades earlier.

    But even as consumers have purchased Apple's devices in droves, they've come to realize that there's more to digital music than what's contained in the little white box. Other, arguably superior devices are now on the market; more are being introduced regularly. These players offer features that will become the sustaining elements of the digital entertainment revolution--they will be smart devices with IP connectivity and increased onboard storage.

    We're already beginning to see this paradigm shift. Consider the following industry changes, which have occurred in the last several years:

    • Traditional audio manufacturers--Denon, Yamaha, Bose--are bringing to market equipment boasting super storage, connectivity and the ability to play multiple audio formats.

    • TiVo and other set-tops are tapping their storage and processing abilities for more than time-shifting TV shows.

    • All the major cell phone manufacturers have phones with increased storage, processing power, connectivity and use of different audio and video formats in their five-year design plans. This year alone we've seen a significant increase in the number of new music phones and a clear shift in the marketing to consumers.

    The greatest objective for today's music listeners--what they regard as their inalienable right--is absolute portability: music that can be accessed anywhere, at anytime. Today's consumers want their music immediately available at home, in their car, at work, on their phones, at a party, or while working out at the gym, without the hassle of using multiple devices that are each tethered to different services.

    In such an open-source world of unfettered digital entertainment, the device is a means, not an end, to set listeners free. Why then, in the long term, would anyone accept the limitations of the proprietary lockout of the iPod and iTunes? Once the digital revolution stabilizes, we'll be left with a wide range of devices that can play music seamlessly. Everything from car dashboards and cell phones to stereo consoles at home or work will give us access to our entertainment.

    In the not-so-distant future, Apple will again be acknowledged for introducing consumers to new technology and marketing the first truly successful line of digital music players--products that the masses lusted after, but eventually moved beyond.

    The technological aesthetic created by Apple has earned it a rightful place in design history. However, a new generation of device makers and consumers is writing the next chapter in digital music history.