Scoble on Dean and iPods

For the casual Blog reader, you might not have heard of Robert Scoble. Simply put he’s a very well known Blog writer in the tech community and he also happens to work for Microsoft. His Blog, however, has nothing to do with Microsoft – his opinions are his own and he’s not blindly “pro-Microsoft”. If anything, I probably have more blind faith in MS than he does. Having said that, he’s recently posted about how Howard Dean has screwed the respectability-pooch and his impressions of why people should avoid the iPod. Obviously this draws a comment from me.

His arguments are well presented and sound, if viewed from a certain angle. Well, about the iPod anyway. I could give two shits about Dean as a candidate because he’s just comic relief to me. Oh, sure, Dean started out strong, but anyone that contradicts himself more than Clinton has will not get my vote and Dean has been cited many times over supporting polar opposites of certain situations. The whole home grown approach was refreshing, but as Scoble correctly points out, Dean’s playing political games just as much as the other candidates.

No, my comments to his post is more about the iPod. Scoble is right about a number of things: hard drives contain moving parts which can fail from motion and/or dirt, iTunes only offers music in a very proprietary iTunes/iPod-only format (AAC), and yes there’s 500 devices that can use the WMA format. AAC is only playable on one portable device. He goes on to say that there will be massive problems with AAC as time goes on and WMA makes its way into cars, home audio, etc.

The problem is that his assumptions on a good many things aren’t entirely correct. First is that of people caring about format. Geeks do. Nerds do. People don’t. A friend of mine got an iPod this past Christmas. I told him to install iTunes and rip away. I considered mentioning that he should change the ripping format to MP3, but then figured who cares? I rip in MP3 format for obvious reasons, least of which is because I’m a Geek; my friend is a casual computer user that listens to music and plays games. Besides, if you need MP3 from an iTunes/AAC song, burn it to a CD and rip it back to MP3. Yay – format problem solved.

The next problem is that Scoble assumes that people will download hundreds of music files. Um, not likely. Unless record companies stop producing CD’s – which will not happen for at least a decade – then people will not buy the majority of their music online. It’s simply not cost effective, given that I’ve seen older CD’s marked down to a price that makes it cheaper than download the music from online. Nor is it the way most analog mortals will want to get their music. Granted, yes, you can get the music instantly if you downloaded it, but I don’t think that will help drive sales beyond a certain niche market.

Beyond that, there’s the issue of format itself. AAC versus WMA, right? Wrong. MP3 won this battle before AAC and WMA were canonized. Better or worse, it doesn’t matter. MP3 is the de-facto standard of music. Rip CD’s into, buy music as, and store files in MP3 format, and you can’t go wrong: MP3 files play on the “over 500 WMA players” plus the “two AAC players” [gotta include the new mini, now!].

The fact is that Apple has the best eye-candy-coated device to date. It took other manufacturers many months just to come out with a HD based MP3 player and they’re mostly ugly and a pain in the ass to work with. The whole argument about “moving parts” is true, but most people are willing to give up solid state 512MB limits for the larger 40GB size; if they need an MP3-player for jogging, skateboarding, etc., they can get a cheap 256MB solid state device and trade off. In fact, if everything is in MP3 format, they can use both devices without worry, so unless something major happens for WMA (or AAC) I don’t think this will help them win any battles.

Simply put, if Microsoft wants to succeed in this place, they need more than software and file formats. They need to lean on their OEM partners to get off their asses and make some cool devices or co-op the teams that have been designing kick ass keyboards and mice for all these years. And yes, if this argument looks familiar, it’s the same thing I’ve said about the Pocket PC platform, where HP finally stepped up and came out with some nice devices. Except of course HP is going with an branded iPod, so they won’t be the savior OEM this time.

Speaking of I think I should upgrade my Generation 1 iPod to a Generation 3 soon… although given my luck with hardware lately… nevermind!

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