Like cell phones, televisions, and DVD players, MP3 players will hit commodity phase soon.
That is, practically everyone will own one, they'll all cost about the same within their subgenres, and improvements will be subtle and evolutionary, not exaggerated. Soon, subscription music services will entice consumers with free MP3 players and a two-year commitment, and bands will give away promotional flash MP3 players. Manufacturers have all but tapped out an MP3 player's potential and are focusing their efforts on new horizons--namely, portable video and interactive media.
There will always be improvements in MP3 player design (including antiscratch measures and OLEDs), capacity, features (such as an iPod subscription service), battery life, and so forth, and respective brands will be distinguishable from one another. Integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, flash capacities of 20GB and more, and best yet, universal format support would definitely be big news. Music stores and especially subscription services such as Napster To Go can certainly improve, but pretty soon, the MP3 player of today will be the CD player of tomorrow, antiquated and one-dimensional (see the Creative Zen Sleek, a solid MP3 player with little to no appeal).
The Creative Zen Sleek, released in mid-to-late 2005, is looking a bit dated.
It's possible that the so-called 6G iPod--a true-video iPod with a big screen--may be announced tomorrow at Apple's media event or, if not tomorrow, certainly sometime this year. And when it inevitably comes out, the device will put the MP3 player in the backseat and join Archos, Creative, Cowon, and others in the portable video market with a media player that isn't just an MP3 player with video features. I know a bunch of new 5G iPod owners who are miffed at the prospect of a new iPod arriving so soon, so to those considering an iPod purchase, wait until after Apple's announcement--or better, after April 1, Apple's 30th anniversary. Despite complaints of tech companies pounding us with new releases, consumers are ravenous for more--more screen, more battery juice, more video content, more integration, more features, and more wireless--and companies such as Apple, Microsoft, and the media industry are ready to deliver.
The online media landscape is changing
While iTunes's (and other online music stores') music catalog is nowhere near complete, the media attention today is definitely focused on video content. Just look at the fledgling Google Video store, which offers video preformatted for the iPod or the Sony PSP. And iTunes's video section has put naysayers to rest; it seems new TV shows appear on a daily basis.
Last I checked, you could sample and download TV shows such as Saved by the Bell, South Park, The A-Team, and Law and Order from iTunes. Last week, NBC announced that it would give away the pilot episode of Conviction (two weeks before the network premiere), and NASCAR will soon be selling highlights from the Nextel Cup Series (whatever that is). A billion songs downloaded on iTunes is pretty amazing, but 15 million video downloads in a few months is just as impressive. With a true-video iPod on the horizon--one that may have a 4-inch-wide screen and improved video battery life--full-length movie downloads on iTunes are on their way, for sure.
Lately, on the San Francisco Muni light rail, where white iPod headphones are ubiquitous, I've noticed more folks watching video. Rather than staring though the windows and listening to music, these users are engaged, watching highlights from the Rose Bowl; movies ripped from DVDs; video downloaded over P2P and converted using readily available software; or in one case, porn. I've even seen a handful of Archos PVPs and Creative Zen Visions in the mix, on the street, and on the bus. People are watching video in public.
On the Windows Media side, things are looking quite bright, with a leaner and meaner Windows Media Player 11 on the horizon. Companies such as Archos and Creative have gotten portable video players down pat. Exciting products such as the Portable Media Center-powered Toshiba Gigabeat S will hit the market soon. And content is looking decent, with Starz Vongo soon offering Hollywood movies to go and bridge technologies such as TiVo to Go enabling users to fill up their portable video players with fresh content. Sling Media's SlingPlayer Mobile will allow Windows Mobile smart phones to receive live TV broadcasts or shows recorded on a TiVo.
Let's go back to the death of the MP3 player. It's not going away; it's just that the devices people really want--smart phones, media players, and gaming devices--will already have a built-in MP3 player. All the advantages of a dedicated player--lots of storage, an intuitive interface, long battery life, and excellent sound quality--will be integrated into a phone or other multifunction device. Someday, and that day will come sooner if a video iPod hits the market, your next MP3 player will be your cell phone or your media player. Just take a peek at Samsung's 3GB SGH-i300 smart phone, which isn't available in the United States yet. Or how about that sick-looking 4GB W900 from Sony Ericsson?
The Samsung SGH-i300: your next MP3 player?
Has the MP3 player lost its luster?
And the industry is reacting: Dell has abandoned its vanilla hard drive models. After battling uphill for MP3 market share (by first introducing native MP3 support, then later launching a gaggle of MP3 players), Sony has abandoned its one-dimensional but critically acclaimed NW-HD5 and its relatively new Walkman Bean player. Instead, it's focusing on the Walkman phone. When you see a company such as SanDisk (which stakes the number two claim on MP3 player sales) entering the video realm with its flash-based e200 series, you know that video is a feature that consumers want--most probably just don't know it yet. Verizon and Sprint both run wireless music stores that can be accessed by their phones, which can also play back video. Things are moving fast, and by this time next year, CNET's portable video or portable media section will engulf our MP3 player section. Let me know what you think about the future of portable media.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET reviews.