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Finding harmony among iPod rivals

Push to develop a universal dock that a range of music players can plug into could help loosen Apple's grip.

Hoping to loosen Apple Computer's grip on the digital music player market, Microsoft is rallying consumer electronics companies to form a common link.

The software maker is part of a working group launched last week by the Consumer Electronics Association to develop a standard port for connecting gadgets like music players to audio systems in homes and cars.

"It is important for the industry to create an open, industrywide standard for docking connectors that will give consumers greater access to the digital entertainment they have stored on devices," Jai Jaisimha, the lead program manager in Microsoft's Windows digital media division, said in a statement.

It's the latest in a series of moves by Microsoft to try to unify the many device makers and music sellers that use its technology.

Apple's popular iPod already has a standard dock connector that allows all recent models to connect to speakers, car kits and other devices.

However, other music player makers, such as Creative Labs, Dell and iRiver, have designed their own ports. That makes it difficult for accessory manufacturers, which need to design add-ons that will work with the multiple formats.

Most build accessories for the iPod, the market leader. Apple collects a cut from each "made for iPod" add-on that connects to the music player's port.

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief technology officer, has praised Apple for its integration of the iPod hardware and iTunes service. Other executives have acknowledged Apple's lead in the area, and Microsoft has gone as far as to tout iPod compatibility as one of the features of the just-released Xbox 360 games console.

Microsoft said it has heard from a variety of companies--including those that make the devices, those who sell them, those who build accessories and car makers--that there needs to be a standard among devices. The need is particularly acute inside the car, said Chad Hodge, a group product manager in Microsoft's Windows digital media unit.

Dock assembly
More than 40 companies, ranging from audio gadget makers to music service providers, are working on the CEA's push for a standard device connector. Here is a sample listing.

Source: Consumer Electronics Association

"Having 15 different connectors on the dash of your car doesn't seem like a good experience," Hodge said. "I'll give credit to Apple; they've done a really good job there."

Carving a slice
There appears to be a long list of companies that, like Microsoft, want to take a bite from Apple's pie.

So far over 60 people from more than 40 companies have signed up to be part of the working group, according to the CEA. They include representatives from Creative Technology, iRiver, Sirius, Belkin, Best Buy, Bose and Nokia. Apple is not a member of the group. The group came out of CEA committee discussions over the summer and had its first meeting earlier this month. Microsoft's Jaisimha is chairing the effort.

The working group aims to have a connector that maps out both an electrical and mechanical standard, so companies can design common accessories. However, the specification would not dictate what digital music encryption methods are used. It would also allow for both analog and digital output.

Although such collaborations always take time, there is a sense of urgency on the part of all involved.

"The goal is to get it done certainly next year, hopefully by mid-next year," said Dave Wilson, the director of standards and technology at the CEA.

Microsoft's Hodge shared that sentiment. "Yesterday would be great," he said, but acknowledged that an industrywide effort will take longer than if the software maker took on the project alone. "But at the end of the day, that means broader support," he said.

IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian said that the move makes sense, but noted that "just because you build it, it doesn't necessarily mean that the accessory makers will come in droves."

Chasing the iPod
Microsoft has been scrambling to try and catch up to Apple's iPod, which has continued to dominate the market for MP3 players.

The company has taken the approach of creating software that is used by a number of different device makers as well as by multiple music stores. The intended benefit is that consumers who opt for one player can use multiple stores, and vice versa. Apple's iPod, on the other hand, works only with its iTunes Music Store, and the store supports only Apple's player.

Starting late last year, Microsoft developed a marketing campaign, known as PlaysForSure, to try and tout the advantages of its strategy. But Microsoft's message has failed to hit home, analysts said.

"That campaign has been slow to raise its profile among music consumers and device buyers," Kevorkian said. "They've got their stake in the ground. Now they've got to raise their banner high, but where is the banner?"

Hodge acknowledged that Microsoft has not always been as clear as it needed to be, particularly as subscription music services emerged. Not all services were compatible with devices that were marketed under the PlaysForSure banner. Microsoft now distinguishes between PlaysForSure devices and stores that work with subscription music, and those that do not.

"There has been some confusion," Hodge said. "We learn as we go."

At the same time, he noted that both PlaysForSure and the CEA effort are still in their infancy.

Apple aloof?
As for Apple, analyst Kevorkian said that the company has been charging ahead, adding the low-end Shuffle, the ultra-thin Nano and its video-capable iPod models all in the past year.

Apple would not comment on the move by Microsoft and the consumer electronics group. However, Kevorkian said she doubted the iPod maker would be eager to join such an effort, given the success it has had with its own dock connector.

"It's unlikely that Apple would choose to adopt a standard if it is different than the one they are using," she said.

Kevorkian said that accessory makers first turned to the iPod market in an attempt to ride Apple's coattails, but in the end, they have helped Apple. Buyers who spent several hundred dollars on an iPod can now take that same music and use it in the home and the car through add-ons.

The car, Kevorkian said, is an area where the standards-based approach could find its most receptive audience, among automakers and consumers who want to protect against shifting fads.

"For a consumer buying a new car, considering the lifespan of a car, it's a risk for a consumer to buy a car that has a connector for a specific type of device," she said.

Although Apple has done well and held its own, a lot can change in the 10 years that someone might own a vehicle. "Consumers run the risk of having a dock in their car for a device that's obsolete," Kevorkian said. "Any kind of universal industry solution would be more palatable to consumers. It helps them future-proof their car purchase."