3 reasons Apple won’t repeat its iPod domination

GigaOm posted a great story about Android’s return salvo against the iPhone this week. Will it be enough to stop or even slow Apple’s momentum? Not likely. Does it matter? Also, no.

Apple’s utter domination of the MP3 market was swift, clean, and complete. And the ruthless super geniuses at Apple doubled down on the iPod’s own worst nightmare: a portable touchscreen computer, disguised as a phone, that would cannibalize iPod sales into oblivion.

So is Apple poised to own the mobile handset market? Nope. What about smartphones? Still no. Here are 3 reasons it’s different this time:

1. Why iPod won: Massive quality gap

Source: Amazon.com
Source: Amazon.com

Remember the Archos jukebox? No? Well, I was excited for it. But within a couple of weeks of use, the silver paint on the cheap plastic wore off, buttons came loose, and the hard drive failed. These devices were constructed like dollar-store children’s toys.

And user interface? I think of myself as technically-inclined, but never, ever figured out how to create a playlist on the Archos. Copying music was a hair-pulling mess; loading the device took literally all night.

Then the iPod came along. You plugged it in, and it slurped up all my music, playlists included, from iTunes in just minutes, charging the device off of the same FireWire cable. The scroll wheel took the process of finding a song from 5-10 minutes to 10 seconds.

Competitors plodded along with sloppy (or just plain odd) design, bad UI, and stupid control gimmicks like joysticks or sliders. I’m convinced Apple put out the 3rd-Gen iPod just to send competitors down the blind alley of touch-sensitive controls.

By the time anyone could catch up (and they never did), the war was over.

Why it’s different now: Narrower quality gap.

Android and Palm are both nipping at Apple’s heels on user interface, and absolutely eating Apple’s lunch on features like multitasking and notifications. The Droid’s screen embarrassed the iPhone many months before Apple had a chance to unveil the cleverly-branded “Retina Display”, which to my (apparently) feeble eyes, is not appreciably sharper than its Android competition.

On Android, transitions are wonky, text could look better, and the whole experience could feel a lot more cohesive. Palm’s failings were definitely not on the UI side, but in hardware and marketing. Microsoft is so far behind it’s tough to imagine them catching up at all now, but it’s not hard to imagine Palm-now-HP making a strong showing for this holiday season and giving us an interesting 3-horse race.

2. Why iPod won: Market perception

Source: iLounge.com

The iPod was a fashion accessory almost as much as a music device. It was a way to buy into a club that sat at the intersection of technology and fashion (with apologies to liberal arts).

Apple’s marketing evolved from music (I doubt many remember the Miles Davis images on the first-gen iPods), to a white device clipped to the belts of hipster silhouettes.

As it went more mainstream, the public felt that anyone caught without an iPod was left behind. It was very much a “gotta-have-it” gadget, whether or not consumers were informed about how it actually worked.

Why it’s different now: Wildly different market perception.

An iPod can be a fashion accessory first and a media player second. A phone’s job is to make phone calls first. Yes, it can be fashionable (and the iPhone 4 finally is), but that’s not its sole purpose. Consumers are aware of all the things they can do with the iPhone, and they’re generally aware that they can do many, if not all, of those things with Android.

The deadliest sin Om posts about is the fragmentation of iPod’s competitors, but they were a rag-tag bunch of also-rans. Android has created a perception of itself as a cohesive brand to be reckoned with. Go ahead, ask an average consumer if they think FroYo is fragmenting the Android platform and see what they say. Then ask them whether they’d choose Android and iPhone, and see if you get a bit more than a blank stare. I’d say Android is easily Google’s strongest marketing to date.

3. Why iPod won: No counter-demand

There were a number of options that sat opposite the iPod, but there wasn’t much they could do that the iPod didn’t do better.

After the launch of the iTunes store in ’04, there was a kerfuffle (love that word) over DRM, and hardcore geeks put their support behind the few remaining MP3 makers like Rio and iRiver. But the general public remained uneducated on vendor lock-in for a couple more years, and no average consumer could even feign excitement for any supposed “iPod killer”.

Why it’s different now: Strong counter-demand. Sure, much of this is demand for an iPhone-like smartphone on other carriers. But having waited this long by AT&T’s side has absolutely entrenched Android in the minds of consumers as a comparable product. And a lot of credit is due to better-educated consumers in the age of rapid-fire information from Twitter and tumbleogs.

But most of all, Apple’s made a huge mess for itself by locking down their platform according to their own whims and shrouding the whole process in Willy-Wonka-style secrecy. There’s a huge pent-up demand for a decent alternative, and Android’s done a good job of getting its foot in the door with one word: “open”.

Final thoughts, and a warning to Android

I do have one caution for Android: the lack of polish is hurting them. Sprint’s new campaign priding themselves on being there “first” with 4G and video calls is terrifying. Manufacturers often race to check a “feature” box (wi-fi, 4G, video calls, multitasking) without much concern as to how a user will actually use the feature on the device.

Most people don’t want to have to manually kill tasks in a task manager. Most people won’t sign up for a Qik account and install 3rd party software to make video calls. Most people don’t want to navigate hierarchal folders on a mobile device. And they definitely don’t want to have to sift through app store spam.

So Apple bides their time and drops in these features once they feel that average people are likely to use them. Most people do notice when animated transitions look jerky and chintzy, even if they can’t put their finger on 10 vs. 30 frames per second. This lack of attention to detail is OK for a while, but it’s exactly what makes Apple so deadly as a competitor.

For my part, I hope Google steps it up in the UI and app curation areas. As much as I love Apple, if Google gets their act together I may wind up switching to Android due to Apple’s refusal to play nice with Google Voice.

Dumping AT&T would just be icing on the cake.

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Brandon's been bringing the pain via blog since '02. Word. Er... Press.