Audio Players, Mobile Phones and Microsoft


I was amazed during the Christmas run up at the demand for MP3 players. I thought they would've been a bit passe at this point, but it seems that Apple's iPod has revived the whole market. I was at Fry's one night and couldn't believe the frenzy around the MP3 player section. I had decided I didn't want to buy an iPod mini because of the price, but my mobile phone isn't doing the job I wanted it to as an audio player so I went out and bought a Creative MuVo Sport C100.

There were several MP3 players for sale, but I went with the C100 because of several reasons. First, it was expandible - it had a slot for an SD/MMC card of up to 512MB. Since I have an unused 512MB MMC at home, this made the 256MB player into a 768MB player for $99, which was worth it to me (otherwise it wouldn't have been). It also syncs using USB 2.0 - which is *fast* - without the need for additional drivers and it has WMA (DRM) support included. These were all very imporant.

My current mobile phone (the Nokia 6630) could and should be my principal MP3 player, but is limited in a variety of ways including 1) I can't buy a bigger memory card 2) the syncing is non-functional and non-programmable even if it worked as intended 3) it doesn't have a standard audio jack which I can plug in my iRock into and 4) has no standard DRM support.

There are no real reasons for any of these limitations, and if you check out the 6620/6630's competition, the Audiovox C500/SMT5600, it has all of the above. Now I'm particularly annoyed at this because I've been bitching about how Microsoft was coming on strong in smartphones for almost two years now, and finally they've passed Nokia in terms of power and flexibility. If you want a great smartphone with video, camera, and music support, the Audivox is a smaller, more functional phone to buy. Once the next version has EDGE or WCDMA support and a better camera (and I'm sure its coming) it'll be completely on par or better that the best that Nokia has to offer. This is a real shame and annoyance to me.

Microsoft's Windows Media Player 10, by the way, worked pretty well for buying, downloading and syncing. I'm amazed at how they've managed to do an end run around *everyone* and get WMA used everywhere. It's incredible isn't it? Not only is WMA arguably a better encoding format that a lot of other standards (so it's technically a good option), but because it's licensable you have all these online music stores (powered by LoudEye and others) and Cinema Now and MovieLink all using the same "standard." Real has been completely shut out, and Apple is only saved by their sense of style and the iPod.

The thing that most irks me is the integration that Microsoft is doing passably well now (I actually prefer seeing the files sync individually in WiMP rather than the magic that happens under iTunes) is that they're extending this to all their consumer products. Have you checked out Play For Sure? Microsoft has the entire strategy already worked out and under way. The living room DVR, the mobile phone, the portable video player, the PC and more. While the rest of the industry - the TiVos and the Nokias - go do their own thing, Microsoft is taking a macro view and giving the consumers what they want: a wholistic solution.

By the way, DRM is important to me for audio books. I want to use the audio player in the car with my iRock Broadcaster while I'm driving to work to listen to books and podcasts. The problem I found out only *after* buying the MuVo C100 is that it doesn't support Audible's DRM version. URGH!! Actually, I also didn't realize how much music I've purchased via iTunes over the past year or so. I've got at least 10 albums I've bought and an audiobook or two, so I really should've bought the iPod for that reason alone. Thank goodness for Hymn. Is there a version of Hymn for WMA-encoded files, I wonder? I have to say 768MB really isn't enough. I had the idea that it was a lot, but it really isn't. The "Second Coming of Steve Jobs" audiobook files are 165MB alone.

Now I think DRM sucks, don't get me wrong. There's no such thing as a "little" DRM. Once you give permission to DRM to control your media, you lost all control. At any moment, the rights holder can change what you are and what you are not allowed to do with "your" data. That's the way DRM works. It's all or nothing. But I'm just like Steve Jobs said - I'd much rather pay a reasonable fee and get a guaranteed good copy of an audio file rather than an illegal shared copy of varying quality. And honestly, there really aren't that many audiobooks being shared out there either, so if that's what you want, you need to buy it from somewhere online, and right now that means DRM.

The other thing I wanted the audio player for is for jogging. The MuVo Sport will be good for that, espically with the built-in stop-watch functionality. It even came with a strap which is an extra $30 on the iPod mini. The FM radio on a device that small, however, is pitiful. It's got no antenna, so every station has static and is useless. So I better pick the right audio to go out on a jog with, because otherwise it's pretty useless.

Anyways, *next* Christmas it'll be amusing to look back a year ago and think how silly everyone was for buying single-purpose devices like this *just* for music. 2GB memory chips will be common and every mobile phone sold will have MP3 support and some sort of DRM. Or everyone will be scrambling for PSP's with their integrated media functionality. Basically, I think the age of dedicated music player has hit its zenith.


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