It's the Standard, Stupid

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With the release of the iPod mini just hours away, I’d like to take this opportunity to swap my Mac 911 hat for that of the author of Secrets of the iPod in order to suggest that the delivery of a small, sleek, and less-expensive iPod—while adding to Apple’s cachet of cool (and bottom line)—does not address an issue that will determine Apple’s future in the music market.

That issue is Standards.

Much has been said about the price of the iPod mini—that a diminutive iPod priced at just $50 less than a standard-issue iPod that offers 3.7 times the mini’s storage is no bargain. But I’m willing to look at it through Apple’s lens. If you consider the mini’s price, storage capacity, and—most importantly—size, there’s nothing that can touch it.

Provided you can touch it, of course. There are a considerable number of consumers who will put up with less storage, a less elegant design, and a clumsier interface in order to put some kind of digital music player in their pocket for $150 or less.

So what? Why should iPod owners care that many will opt for cheaper players?

Because ultimately it’s not about the player. It’s about the music you put on the player.

The iTunes Music Store sells music only in the AAC audio-encoding format and the iPod is the only portable music player that supports this format. The rest of the online music world has settled on a different audio standard—Microsoft’s .wma format.

The same people who buy inexpensive players are also purchasing music online from sources other than the iTunes Music Store and thereby amassing collections of music that are incompatible with the iPod. What are the odds that these people will become iPod owners if their music collections won’t play on it?

Feel free to enter your single digit answer here.

Given the iPod mini’s price and configuration, it seems clear that Apple isn’t interested in making a cheap iPod to compete in the $150-and-under market—a market that Apple acknowledges makes up the majority of digital music players sold. It's just as clear that Apple has no intention of adopting .wma for the iPod or Store. So we’re faced with a standards divide—one, based solely on economics, that favors music players not made by Apple.

I can imagine the folks at Apple having a good laugh over this one. “We’re smart people. We’ve figured this out, Breen. Go back to telling people how to rebuild their mailboxes.”

But just in case they need one more voice to push this thing along, I’d like to suggest that Apple create The Division of Scurriers and put it to good use.

These Scurriers would have a single mission: Fan out across the globe, locate companies that design/manufacture/market/sell inexpensive digital music players, fall to their knees, and plead “For the love of all that’s holy, please, please, PLEASE make your music player compatible with AAC!”

And when said designer/manufacturer/marketer/seller responds, “Why should I?” the Scurrier stands up, dusts himself off, and replies:

“We’ll let your customers shop at the iTunes Music Store.”

Seems like more than a palatable deal to me. The d/m/m/s sells more players because his or her customers want to shop at the finest online music outlet around. The iPod brand isn’t sullied by cheap players—those who still desire the Mercedes of music players can buy iPods and those in the Hyundai market can still be served. And the AAC format is available to the masses, thus ensuring that the iPod doesn’t become this decade’s betamax.

I tally three wins there.

Apple, it’s time to get scurrying.

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