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Forget the iPod. MP3 players for the Long Tail.

CNET Senior Editor Donald Bell ponders the dullness of most MP3 players.

After walking the floor of this year's Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES), I've seen the future of MP3 players, and it's dull. In 2008, it seems manufacturers are becoming more content with the idea that they'll never compete with the iPod in the hearts and minds of consumers. Unfortunately, there's still a noticeable lemming effect that keeps manufacturers pumping out Nano clones despite their better judgment. As Apple's own iPod prices keep declining, however, and their iTunes software becomes stronger, the incentive for consumers to buy non-iPod MP3 players will inevitably shrink. In order to adapt (and possibly coexist) with an increasingly iPod world, why don't manufacturers throw out their stale B-grade MP3 players and start seizing the unique opportunities to create niche devices for today's Long Tail marketplace? After all, there are problems to be solved with MP3 players that no one--not even Apple--has been able to figure out yet.

Photo of Encore music store in Ann Arbor, MI.
Where's the MP3 player for the real music nerds? Donald Bell/CNET Networks

For instance, here's something that has always puzzled me: Why is it that most of the MP3 players that cross my desk aren't created for the people who truly love music? Almost any off-the-shelf MP3 player is enough to keep a casual music listener entertained--but what about the serious music nerds? What about those die-hard music savants who lurk on Pitchfork or tidy up their favorite band's entry in Wikipedia? These guys shouldn't have to suffer the indignity of being restricted to basic ID3 tag sorting or thumbnail cover art. And yet, among the parade of MP3 players on my desk that are made for joggers, commuters, business travelers, or gadget geeks, not one touts itself as being the superior device for people who consider music central to their lives. In short, most manufacturers are creating gadgets for themselves, catering only to the out-of-touch executives and technically-minded engineering teams that fill their ranks. It's a familiar problem that plagues many industries, but because music lovers are such large and intensely devoted consumer group, ignoring their whims just seems like bad business.

For example:

  • Where's the MP3 player for the record store employee who wants to sort his music by record label and create his own sub-genre tags?

  • Where's the MP3 player for stoners who want trippy interactive visuals to accompany a lossless version of Dark Side of the Moon?

  • Where's the MP3 player for the indie rock vinyl collector who feels lost without life size album artwork and liner notes?

  • Where's the MP3 player for the groupie who wants to know where their favorite band is touring?

  • Where's the classical music MP3 player that allows you to sort by historical period and display sheet music?
  • There's a specialty MP3 player for swimmers, so why not make one for music-loving stoners?

    Despite my whining, I understand why these manufacturers are slow to change their strategy. First off, these companies are global in scope and the market for MP3 players in the US is not identical to other parts of the world. Secondly, most of these companies don't simply make MP3 players. Companies such as Philips, Sony, SanDisk, Creative, and Samsung, manufacture everything from cell phones to electric toothbrushes. Not surprisingly, these companies seem to conceive and market their MP3 players the same way they would an LCD TV or an SD memory card. The result is usually an incrementally improved product, with a competitive set of features and a mass-market design. These products make a lot of sense financially. An iPod alternative from any of the previously mentioned manufacturers typically offer retailers healthy markups and easy sales. Unfortunately, marketing an MP3 player made specifically for fans of audiobooks, or techno DJs, takes more than just an endcap display at Best Buy and a listing in the SkyMall catalog.

    The Trevor Baylis wind-up EcoMedia player might not be for everyone, but it solves a very real dilemma for one niche of consumers.

    The question is: is it worth it for these companies to break away from the product formula they've come to depend on, just to create an MP3 player that may only appeal to a small group of people? Well, it depends who you ask.

    There are hundreds of thousands of people, people far more obsessive than I, for whom listening to music is one of the most cherished and enriching experiences in life. For the majority of us, however, music is just entertaining filler. I'm not here to say music savants are better people than casual listeners, I just want to point out that Apple has already made the best MP3 player for casual listeners, so why not chase after the group that's not being served? As the iPod becomes more entrenched in its strictly mainstream appeal, serious music aficionados will want portable music players that distinguish them from the herd and provide a deeper connection to the music and artists they love. If we dig further, beyond the scope of music savants, there are other overlooked opportunities to create devices for people with poor eyesight; weatherproof MP3 players for extreme backpackers; or an MP3 player for people who just want podcasts and newsfeeds.

    In terms of numbers of units sold, however, there will always be a place for inexpensive, nondescript MP3 players. After all, the majority of people consume music slowly and passively, using it as an escape from their daily commute or as a distraction from their gym workout. There are far more people looking for a cheap MP3 player to take to the gym than there are indie rock nerds seeking an MP3 player that embeds All Music Guide reviews into their song files. If you can get past the numbers, however, there's incredible power to be won by creating an MP3 player taste makers prefer over the iPod. No one's done it yet, but as Apple's focus shifts to the iPhone and the playing field for music downloads is being leveled by DRM-free content, there's never been a better time to try something risky.

    So please, MP3 player manufacturers of the world, make 2008 the year that you rethink your product strategy. Society has all the utility MP3 players it will ever need and the iPod retired its claim to hipness the moment they called themselves "Classic." There's some unexplored opportunities out there worth pursuing. You might not be able to convince big-box retailers to stock it, but you will have made the world a better, more interesting place to live.

    If you have an opinion on why I'll never see a stoner MP3 player or if you have a fantasy MP3 player of your own, sound off in the comments section.