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Why we would've been better off without the iPod

Crave's Eric Mack kicks off WWDC week by imagining a world where Apple never revolutionized digital music and finds it might not be that bad a place. In fact, it could be an improvement.

Did Apple hold us back by pushing things forward with the iPod? Radius Products

As another Apple Worldwide Developers Conference kicks off in San Francisco this week, I've been thinking about what the world would look like without Apple as we've come to know it in the past 15 years. That is to say, how would things be different if Steve Jobs hadn't returned to pull the company he founded from the existential threat of bankruptcy?

I'll try to answer the question in installments this week during WWDC, and today I'll begin our tour of this quantum no-Apple universe by considering the life of our doubles in an alternate dimension without the iPod. The more I've dug into the question and the archives, the more I've begun to think they might be better off.

Tune in June 11 anytime after 8 a.m. PT for our Apple WWDC keynote live blog.

First, I'll give credit where it's due.

Back in 2001, the future of the burgeoning digital music revolution was pretty uncertain. Napster had been shut down, the RIAA was on a roll bringing lawsuits to try to curb piracy, and not many people over 25 years of age actually owned one of the clunky MP3 players available from smaller companies like Creative, which had made its name on PC sound cards.

When Apple first introduced the iPod just a few weeks after 9/11 that fall, there were three critical elements at play that would make it a hit -- Apple's brilliant and effective marketing, a novel design highlighted by that trademark browsing wheel and a breakthrough 1.8-inch 5GB hard drive from Toshiba that could hold 1,000 songs.

All that would cost you $400 in 2001, and that first model didn't quite remake the industry overnight as legend might have you believe. According to IDC data at the time, 3.3 million digital music players were sold worldwide in 2000 -- in its first year Apple sold less than 600,000 iPods. That's certainly a lot of iPods, but it's not the overwhelming market share it would enjoy five years later and it's not the Apple device sales numbers we expect to see these days.

Forget the new spaceship campus, and imagine for a minute that Apple is literally out of this world. Apple

Down the digital rabbit hole
So, for the sake of an argument that I'll never be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, let's pretend all that never happened. Further, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please disregard all that followed -- the iTunes store, the iPod Touch, and the millions of iPod cases and accessories weighing down the store shelves of the world. Also, please put your iPhone out of sight until we complete this exercise; it is imperative that you be sequestered from all things iOS for the next few moments.

Now we'll begin our tour of the quantum no-Apple universe. It's October 2001 and there's more chaos in the music industry and the wider world than we've seen in a generation. Jobs is making fantastic movies at Pixar, but not thinking much about digital music devices. The market for MP3 players is continuing to grow, and while it doesn't happen in 2001, at some point a big name in consumer electronics makes a digital music player that combines the three critical elements of marketing, design and storage space that Apple hit on in our world.

My bet is that it doesn't happen much later than 2002, and that the breakthrough device comes from one of three companies -- Sony, Microsoft, or Samsung.

Sony seems to be the player in the game with the most pieces of the puzzle -- this is a company with marketing muscle, the brand behind the Walkman, respected for quality, and an early entrant into the MP3 market. But Sony stumbled with MiniDisc, which never fully took off, and while both Sony and Apple are notorious proponents of proprietary formats, Sony's insistence on converting all MP3s on its early player into its ATRAC format is just really super-annoying. But with some more time, there's reason to believe that Sony might get it right eventually and reclaim its good name with a cross-platform digital music environment.

Microsoft eventually put out a really high-quality digital music system in the Zune that failed to ever catch fire, likely due to the fact that it was years late to the party. Of course, I've asked you all to disregard everything that followed the iPod in our world since it was all influenced by the iPod, so that means it's not fair to include the Zune in these deliberations. So let's just consider that 2001 is a rare period in Redmond. The company is emerging from drawn-out drama with the Justice Department over the browser wars and the Xbox and Windows XP, two of Microsoft's bigger hits of this century, are debuting. With Apple out of the picture, perhaps Zune or something like it could see more success.

The most interesting contender for the throne we've forced Apple to abdicate in this scenario is Samsung. At the turn of the century, Samsung is already working with Pixo, the company behind the original iPod OS (in fact, in our world in 2006, Samsung would tap the guy behind that OS again to create a new iPod competitor), for the interface on its phones.

Almost a full year before the iPod debut in the real world, Samsung teams up with Sprint to offer the Uproar, the first mobile phone with a built-in MP3 player. The problem with the Uproar is that it only comes equipped with enough storage for about an hour of music and is only available on the 4th-largest carrier in the U.S. Perhaps more to the point, the problem with the Uproar is that it's just ahead of its time.

This is where I start to wonder if our quantum counterparts in an iPod-less world might have it better when it comes to our digital quality of life.

An earlier universal device?
Samsung was thinking of a single device to rule them all before Jobs fast-tracked a digital music player project in California. The huge Korean company may not have been able to pull off the same elegant design or euphoria-inducing marketing that our-world Apple excels at, but in a world where the iPod hadn't sucked all the oxygen out of the room, they would have done at least a decent job at both. In our alternate world, Samsung could produce a portable media player in the first few years of the 21st century that would certainly have been an improvement over the early models like the Diamond Rio and Creative Nomad, and come packaged as an application on your mobile phone.

In other words, while folks in our timeline spent six years dazzled by a string of iPod iterations until the iPhone changed everything again, I believe many more folks in no-iPod world could have been consuming all kinds of media on their phones years earlier. Heck, maybe we'd even have better wireless networks as a result of that pressure.

Further, if the first big hit portable media player had also been a phone, it would have pushed the innovation drive in that area to happen sooner, and we may have seen touch-screen phones and who knows what other advances from the likes of Samsung, Research In Motion, or a little startup called Android much earlier.

Then again, if you believe the legends, a world without Apple is a world where the music industry collapses and iTunes isn't there to revive it, leaving us with nothing to listen to on any kind of portable music player. But that's a story for later...

To be continued...