Digital audio vendors not afraid of iPod shuffle

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If you think the new iPod shuffle has existing flash MP3 player vendors shaking in their playlists, think again. Although it could just be a case of putting on a brave face, all the vendors MacCentral spoke with claimed to be either excited or relieved upon seeing the new flash player from Apple.

"We have two reactions," said Dan Torres, vice-president of product marketing for Rio, the first company to ship a mp3 player and still one of the biggest players in the market. "First, we welcome Apple to the flash space that we've been in for quite some time. I think it will be good for the market. Our second feeling is something of a disappointment. Apple shipped a somewhat neutered product."

"A blind user interface [UI] or even a single line UI isn't popular with consumers. Ultimately consumers want a multi-line UI. Historically, these types of products just don't do very well."

Creative Labs, which has been running a series of ads positioning itself as an iPod competitor, also took a swipe at Apple's new player, pointing out the lack of features compared to other flash players.

"We were very surprised that they would release a player with a limited feature set," said Lara Vacante PR manager for Creative Labs, manufacturer of the popular MuVo and Nomad line of MP3 players. "We were expecting something competitive or innovative, but there's nothing new there. Flash is a very commoditized market. Our thinking is 'get in line.'"

Gary Byrd, spokesperson for iRiver, shared a similar sentiment. "In general, the feeling is that it's not seen as directly competitive, because [Apple's] product is entry level. It doesn't have an interface, or many other things."

"Ours have tons of features, like an FM tuner and recorder that you can even schedule recordings to wake up, record something, and go back to sleep. If you go to CES, there's a flash player like every ten feet. The entry level players are not what we're competing against."

Rio's Torres also claimed that of the iPod shuffle's main selling points -- price and style -- the price was deceptive, as users would need to purchase accessories that come included with Rio Forge Sport -- the model Jobs used as a comparison in his keynote presentation.

"For $149 you get a 1GB player. You want an armband, that's $29. [Users without an easily accessible port] need a USB cable, another twenty or so odd dollars. We think for a sports product, its battery needs to be removable. An extra battery adds weight. It ends up being closer to $200, and that's not even including things like the FM tuner and SD expansion card."

Nor, said Torres, would the iPod Shuffle alter his company's strategy. "There are similar players, like the SanDisk, existing in the space. We already are quite aware, and have a strategy, so Apple's announcement doesn't change what we're doing."

Virtually all of the manufacturers MacCentral spoke with pointed out that the iPod Shuffle lacks the feature sets found in their products.

"There isn't a comparable flash player in our line. The closest thing is the original MuVo we released four years ago. The iPod shuffle does not have an LCD screen, which is something consumers definitely want. If you consider the capacity of the iPod Shuffle to a Creative flash player, we hold about double the amount of files in the 512MB or 1GB player," said Creative's Vacante, referring to the smaller Windows Media format that Creative and other players support but Apple does not.

"The [Creative] MuVo Micro has a built-in FM radio, FM recording, line-in recording, and I think the iPod Shuffle just can't compete. If you look at battery life, it can't compete there, either. Our battery life ranged from 15-18 hours. Some players do have a rechargeable battery, such as the MuVo Slim," which Vacante notes also comes in an array of colors.

Yet even if Apple does go on to dominate the flash market as it has the hard drive sector, that doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't room in the pool for everyone.

Longtime MP3 player vendor Rave MP was sanguine. "The introduction of Apple's new players will draw increased attention to the versatility and convenience of flash-enabled MP3 products, an area Rave-MP has taken the lead in with enhanced features, expandable memory, and intuitive capabilities," noted Russ Ernst, Senior Product Manager for GoVideo, via e-mail.

Likewise, Torres notes that, despite the iPod's dominance, Rio's sales grew 54 percent in 2004 over 2003.

This story, "Digital audio vendors not afraid of iPod shuffle" was originally published by PCWorld.

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