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Commentary: iPod Photo? Stick to music

Forrester Research says Apple's iPod Photo is living proof that a device can't serve two masters.

Commentary: iPod Photo? Stick to music
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET
February 25, 2005, 12:45PM PT

By Ted Schadler and Josh Bernoff, Analysts

The iPod Photo is living proof that a device can't serve two masters.

The color screen is great, but the iPod can't really offer a great photo experience with its small screen, recycled music interface, lack of a camera and poor photo-management features. Our advice? Stay focused on music. Keep the color screen--and keep enhancing digital music with iTunes Music Store franchises, podcasts and music subscriptions.

We've been living with iPod Photo for three months now. At first, we loved the addition of photos to the music player--the wow factor alone was reason enough to upload photos. But the more we carried the device around, the more we realized two things:

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A Roundup

1. The color screen does make the iPod music experience better. Let's face it: Everything looks better in color. And so does the iPod. Text, navigation and album cover art look great and extremely familiar to those used to working on a PC or Mac. The color screen makes menus more readable, photos displayable and the music experience more delightful.

2. Alas, a color screen by itself does not a great photo experience make. Though the iPod Photo is a fine way to drag a bunch of pictures around to show friends, it's clear Apple Computer kept the focus on music--not photos. There's no camera, the screen is tiny, the iTunes synchronization is clunky, the lack of on-the-go photo album creation is annoying, and (for power users) the file structure is tedious. Of course, you can plug the iPod Photo into a television and click through a slide show, but you're limited to the slide shows already on the device--and you can't edit them without going back to your computer.

More functions, more disappointment
The smart design decisions Apple made to bring digital music to life (everything from iPod autosync to the FairPlay digital rights management, or DRM, technology that makes the iTunes Music Store possible) interfere with a killer photo experience. In fact, any device that attempts to handle multiple applications and interaction models will disappoint in at least one of them.

Portable devices must be simple because of their size, which means fewer buttons to do things and less screen real estate to handle options. Simplicity does not end with the device; the entire connected experience--device, application and service--must be simple. The iPod, iTunes and the iTunes Music Store are brilliant in their simplicity as a single music application.

Photos are a lean-forward activity that centers on the screen, whereas music is a mostly lean-back activity where sound is the critical component. Delivering a killer photo experience would require a complete redesign of the device, application and service to make it dead simple to take pictures, manipulate them, print them, put them in slide shows and share them.

It's impossible to do all core tasks equally well, even within a single application like music. That's why iPod's song selection is simpler and easier than its song-rating feature. The challenge is to anticipate and prioritize the tasks correctly. Conflicting priorities can lead to flawed consumer experiences--one of the biggest challenges facing devices such as the BlackBerry 7520 and the Audiovox SMT5600. The correct task prioritization depends on whether a consumer uses the device primarily as a phone or as an e-mail device.

Taming music's digital frontier
Instead of adding myriad photo features to the iPod Photo to try to overcome its multifunction challenges, Apple should keep the color screen and basic photo functions; revamp the iPod Photo advertising to emphasize how photos enhance the music experience; and get on with the business of improving the digital music experience. Five ideas to kick-start things in Cupertino:

1. Franchise the iTunes Music Store to specialty retailers. No one music store can serve all music lovers' needs. As Chris Anderson eloquently explained in his Wired magazine article "The Long Tail," there's money to be made in songs that aren't in the Top 10--or the Top 1 million. Some consumers want nothing but concert tapes of Phish, or vocal music from Africa or songs from indie bands that include a zither--songs and communities Apple will be hard-pressed to offer and serve. Apple could expand the available titles without compromising the iPod experience or risk losing music customers if it franchises its iTunes Music Store--licensing the application while retaining some control over the content.

2. Exploit podcasting to tap--and create--a wealth of audio programming. The iPod spawned podcasting, a new audio distribution model to get the daily news, a talk show or a song of the day. The trouble today is that iPod owners must jump through hoops to get material, and there's no convenient podcasting content aggregator. Apple could solve both of those problems and jump-start a market for legal podcasting.

3. Add music subscriptions to iPod's capabilities. MusicNet@AOL now has 420,000 subscribers. Microsoft's Janus DRM technology lets music stores implement subscription business models that support portable devices: play any song for a month; get two days for free; try it then buy it; use it this month on your portable player. For example, Napster's recently announced Napster To Go service charges consumers $14.95 per month for access to 1 million songs on their PCs or portable players. While Apple has avoided subscriptions, many consumers will like the variety subscriptions permit.

4. Improve AirPort Express with multizone and remote control features. The battle for control of how content will flow over home networks is heating up. Consumers can now choose music distribution solutions from PC companies such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, consumer-electronics makers such as Sonos or from their cable operator. To keep AirPort Express competitive with these offerings, Apple should extend it along with iTunes so consumers can play different songs on stereos in different rooms, show the songs playing and queued and use a variety of universal remote controls.

5. Extend iTunes to help consumers manage their music libraries. Consumers are amassing digital music libraries--and need ways to better manage them. Apple should be adding features like easy backup, better error recovery and an easy way to put all Christmas songs away until next year. And what about improving the quality and experience of iTunes Internet radio? Or easier legal playlist sharing (songs and all)?

© 2005, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.