In a recent
article, my colleague Rick LePage outlined
five reasons the iPod succeeded. Namely:
- Total integration
- The interface
- Windows support
- The iTunes Store
It’s a good list, and I can’t really argue with any of the reasons on it. But as
’s Senior Reviews Editor—the guy who coordinates coverage of all the iPod
on the market—I feel the need to add a sixth reason for the iPod’s success over the last five years:
It all started so innocuously: cases. Before the iPod, who actually bought a
for their portable player? Sure, people used jogging belts and fanny packs for holding their Walkmans or Discmans (or generic variants) during exercise, but for everyday carrying-around? It was almost unheard of.
But then Apple released a beautiful gadget made of shiny chrome and sleek acrylic, and people felt bad about blemishing it—even though it worked just as well with scratches as it did without. (Though shelling out $400 made you a lot more inclined to take extra measures to protect your new music player.) So suddenly there were scores—and, eventually, hundreds—of cases made just for your new toy.
As the iPod took off, a new market developed: ways to listen to your iPod-stored music besides headphones. As I’ve been known to point out when speaking about the iPod, Apple’s player changed our approach to listening to music. With older technologies—LPs, 8-Tracks, cassettes, MiniDiscs—you carried around (a few) individual music-containing media, and once you got somewhere, you needed a player capable of playing back that particular media. The iPod enabled you to carry your
music collection (or at least a big chunk of it) wherever you went, and, just as importantly, included the player. All you needed was a set of speakers. (Sure, this was true for most MP3 players, but no other player had the iPod’s market share, even early on.) So you started to see better “computer” (self-powered) speaker systems, speaker systems made specifically for the iPod, and connection kits to hook your iPod up to existing home and car stereos. You also saw chargers and other accessories designed to keep your iPod going in these situations.
Then came the
dock connector, the importance of which to the iPod accessory market cannot be overstated. Although Apple received a good amount of criticism for getting rid of the iPod’s standard FireWire port in favor of a proprietary connector, it was a stroke of genius in retrospect. How so? Consider:
- A single connector can be used for power, data transfer, playback control, audio input and output, and more.
- Accessory vendors don’t have to fool around with multiple connections and, for the most part, don’t need to be concerned with where various ports will be located on different models. Apart from each iPod’s physical shape, vendors and consumers know that a dock-connector accessory will “fit” all dockable iPods.
- Dock-connector accessories are truly plug-and-play—you don’t have to fiddle with volume-matching, finding the right plug size, or other compatibility issues.
- Audio quality is superior via the dock connector than via the headphone jack.
In other words, this connection was appealing to both accessory vendors
consumers, and made producing and buying accessories easier. But just as important, when it comes to the iPod’s long-term success, was the lock-in effect: Once you’ve purchased a few dock-connector accessories, the next time you’re in the market for a new player, you’re more likely to buy another iPod, since most of your accessories will work with it. (Or, to look at it from the opposite perspective, your accessories
work with any other player.)
In fact, the dock connector has been such a success for Apple that Microsoft included a similar port in the design of the upcoming Zune; it’s also making a concerted effort to convince
accessory makers to create iPod-like Zune-dock-connector accessories.
Finally, as the iPod’s gobbled up more and more market share, more and more accessories—dock-connector or not—became available. So many, in fact, that at some point, accessories started to
iPods. The “iPod ecosystem,” as some like to call the market for iPod accessories, became a significant factor to consider when buying a player. Walk into any major electronics store—Best Buy, Circuit City, Frys, Radio Shack, even Target—and you’re faced with scads of iPod-only accessories: speaker systems, alarm clocks, chargers, FM transmitters, cases, and more. Even traditional brick-and-mortar stores such as Sears carry a good selection. Contrast this with the meager accessory offerings for players from Creative, Rio, iRiver, and others—many of which are simply generic products that work with any audio player (including the iPod)—and the iPod looks even more appealing.
At some point all of these factors came together, leaving the iPod in an enviable position: iPods selling accessories, accessories selling iPods, and the lock-in effect snowballing both. Granted, it’s impossible to determine how many iPods have been sold due to the allure of its healthy accessory market, but you can’t ignore the role of
in making the iPod the most popular product of its kind.