By Eliot Van BuskirkApple's iPod has been our favorite MP3 player for more than a year, mostly because of its world-beating design. The player's physical wins are obvious: a small size, an intuitive menu structure, and the much-lauded scroll wheel. The iPod's software is equally impressive and subtler than most since you barely notice it. Currently, no MP3 player integrates with its corresponding file-transfer software as well as the iPod does with iTunes. And because players have to be synced to your computer regularly in order to load new songs, seamless integration with your digital-music collection is a key denominator in the perfect-MP3-player equation.
Senior editor, CNET Reviews
(March 7, 2003)
Cases in point are the Mac and PC iterations of the iPod. The Mac versions received a 9.0 rating from CNET, while the Windows models scored an 8.7. The reason for this ratings disparity is simple: the Mac iPod integrates much more tightly with iTunes than the Windows version does with MusicMatch. On a Mac, all you have to do is plug in the iPod; iTunes launches, checks for new content, and syncs it to the portable device's hard drive without crashing or freezing. The MusicMatch experience on a PC is decidedly bumpier
Synergy is not always a vacuous marketing term
It's not the iPod, the operating system, or the iTunes software alone that makes the Mac iPod so smooth to use--it's the way that all three work together seamlessly. Apple has a clear advantage over other portable-device manufacturers because the company controls the operating system, the computer hardware, and the product design. To see how much harder this sort of integration is within the Windows world, consider the new iPod clone that I just reviewed, the eDigital Odyssey 1000. This hard drive-based player has more features and a 20GB hard drive for less money, but loading MP3s onto it, especially initially, involves an inordinate amount of work on the part of the user. Clearly, your time is too precious to spend all weekend reorganizing your 20GB music collection into a bilevel folder tree (with the Odyssey, all files ideally need to be inside an album folder, and all the album folders need to be contained within artist folders).
So, what's an MP3-hardware manufacturer to do? Maybe they should stop writing software altogether and let third-party shareware developers handle the interface. After all, you don't see Dell or Gateway developing operating systems and software for their hardware.
Let the software people write the software
This idea occurred to me after following a company called Red Chair Software, which offers a nifty app called Notmad Explorer that syncs your PC with Creative's Nomad line. If you own a compatible Creative player--the original Nomad Jukebox, the Nomad Jukebox 2, the Nomad Jukebox 3, the Zen, the Nomad II, or the MuVo--you can purchase the software from Red Chair for $10 to $35, depending on which package you buy. Besides clean syncing, Notmad offers some out-there features, including the ability to use the Jukeboxes as Web-based MP3 servers or SQL databases, as well as advanced playlist creation.
I e-mailed the owner, director, and sole full-time employee of the company, who calls himself Red Chair, to find out how his firm ended up in the intriguing position of writing software for someone else's electronics.
When Red first came up with the idea of writing software for the Nomads, Creative offered a software development kit (SDK) for third-party companies to use when devising new add-ons. But initially, Red says, the SDK was too buggy to be of much use. His problems were solved when a Belgian Nomad user reverse-engineered the Nomad protocol. In America, such a stunt is illegal, but that's not the case in Belgium. The user released his own SDK, called JBDirect, in late 2001. Red Chair started using the Belgian's handiwork in early 2002 to create Notmad.
What, they didn't sue?
Eventually, Creative found out about this. But instead of suing the bejesus out of Red Chair in the manner that many shortsighted corporations typically do, Creative's top brass endorsed the idea, and the company now supplies Red Chair with an improved SDK, free equipment, and early driver information to help him keep up with Creative's development cycles. Why? Because the company knows that Red Chair makes its MP3 players more appealing--especially to the sort of hard-core techie types who use the software to build SQL databases and gauge their USB transfer rate with that of other Notmad users.
People are taking notice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Creative's support staff occasionally refers users to Red Chair's site to download the Notmad software, in hopes that it will correct their problems. And Red told me that sales are three to four times what they were a few months ago and continue to improve every week. These days, what other companies can cite that sort of growth rate? Aside from maybe DuctTapeGuys.com, I can't think of an example.
Red Chair is no longer an isolated case. MoodLogic, the song-identification company that I wrote about in June 2000, is poised to make a similar move. Since it already develops software that can automatically identify songs in your collection and fix their ID3 tags, MoodLogic is uniquely positioned to redefine itself as a third-party device-syncing developer. After all, it would be pretty convenient to transparently clean up your improperly tagged files as you send them to your MP3 player.
To this end, MoodLogic has quietly been adding support for more and more MP3 players to its song-identification product. Elion Chin, cofounder and vice president of corporate development for MoodLogic, told me that the company plans on releasing beta 2.0 of its new DeviceLink software on March 7. The app has been designed from the ground up to integrate more tightly with MP3 players. Currently, DeviceLink supports three players: the Apple iPod (Windows), the Archos Jukebox, and the RCA Lyra Jukebox.
A full version of DeviceLink will be available to MoodLogic users in March for an additional fee of $10. If the company can successfully combine its existing song-identification technology and add cool features such as the ones that Red Chair has been working on, device manufacturers will be falling over themselves to bundle it with their MP3 players. Users will certainly benefit and could start defecting from the iPod ranks--especially now that many iPod users report that the player's internal battery dies after a year.
The hippo and the bird
Device manufacturers have been dropping the ball on the software end of the equation for long enough. At best, their apps don't get in your way; at worst, they ruin perfectly good hardware. Maybe it's time that hardware builders admitted that they need some help. In the strange ecosystem where hardware meets software, things might work better if device manufacturers formed a symbiotic relationship with companies such as Red Chair and MoodLogic. Everyone wins: The devices gain new powers, users get more out of their players, and syncing-software developers collect registration fees for their efforts.
Senior Editor Eliot Van Buskirk covers portable audio and music-related issues for CNET Reviews. Have a question for him? Let him know!
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