iPod Killers? MP3-Only Player Competition Long Faded.

By Richard Menta 11/24/12

Recently, I attempted to run an overview of the latest update of those non-smart portable music and video players that not named iPod. I ran into a problem. I could barely find any new ones. It looks like all but a few of the bargain names like Coby have abandoned that market to the iPod shuffle, iPod nano and iPod Classic. A cursory look through the likes of Walmart, Target, and Toys-R-Us recently turned up nothing but the cheapest models, many from brands I have never before encountered.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the fall season was a busy time of year for us. Fall was when the new digital portables were unveiled for the holiday shopping season. All of the manufacturers, including pre-iPod makers like Creative Labs and Sony, defiantly proclaimed that their latest device would unseat the iPod as king of the MP3 players. Back then Apple's iPod took two-thirds of the market, but dozens of companies were poised to take as much of it back as they could. This included PC makers like Dell and Alien, phone makers like Motorola, and numerous start-ups with innovative designs.

The press gave them all the ridiculous moniker of iPod Killers, one which they gladly wore and and one which we regularly joked about on these pages. We even named our annual series that introduced new models the iPod Killers for Christmas or Summer as a jest, though we found out that not everyone got it.

When a manufacturer's MP3 player gained little traction in the MP3 market they evolved the product and tried again. One notable improvement was to add video and photo playback to their wares. This created the Personal Media Portable, a pricey but modest-sized niche that the likes of Archos hoped to be their ticket to volume sales. It didn't quite work out that way. Even though Apple was late to the PMP market, when they released an iPod that played video it was Apple who expanded the niche into a mass market and took it over.

Richard Menta

The only genuine success of the period was the Sony PSP. As I wrote in our iPod Killers for Christmas 2006:

But seriously, is there really a player out there to challenge the iPod? In truth, one manufacturer has already found a secret sauce that makes it the second best selling portable digital player today. This player sells one unit for every 2.3 iPod's and is the the best portable media player on the market in our opinion. That player is the Sony PSP, excluded from the top digital player lists because it is primarily a game player.

The Sony PSP was already out for over a year when I wrote that opinion. I found it curious that no one else saw it as anything beyond a game player, even after later research showed that more than half of PSP owners used the device as their primary music player. The Sony PSP turned out to be a prescient portable, and continued to hold sway well into Apple's release the iPhone and the iPod touch in 2007.

That's because it wasn't until Apple opened the App Store in July of 2008 that the full power of the iPhone and the iPod touch were unleashed. That month both devices evolved into portable game units (portable PCs really). Today, just five years later, iOS and Android devices have taken over the portable game industry. The PSPs most recent successor, the Sony Playstation Vita, has sold a few million units since its February 2012 release, but that number is dwarfed by Android and iOS device output, which sell in the tens-of-millions as do the $0.99 games which redefined game pricing.

If we look at the evolution of the MP3 player into a smart device, then we can say that Apple competitors have found success. Today Android devices outsell iOS devices. Of course, dozens of manufacturers have to share the Android marketplace, whereas Apple owns the iOS sphere all to itself.

But what about the plain old MP3 player? Those devices that play only music and were all the rage in 2002? They still sell in the tens-of-millions, but in 2012 Apple sells almost all of it. What's left go to those Korean and Chinese factories who updated the old models they used to stamp out for iRiver and Creative, printed an American sounding name on their fascia, and hawk these generics out themselves to what still passes for the the five and dime in local US communities. There is no official announcement when a new model comes out. They just quietly show up on shelves until their run of ten thousand units are moved and a new batch is hopefully ordered.



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