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by Bryan Chaffin

The iPod: What Would Have Made It Right (For Me)
October 24th, 2001

Apple can't win, at least not where many Mac users are concerned. Either the company isn't doing enough, is doing too much, is pricing whatever it is doing too high, or is just doing it all wrong. The Mac Observer as a whole and I as an individual writer has certainly had our fair share of complaints. Unfortunately, the iPod is not going to be an exception.

My initial reaction to the new unit was that "the name is stupid, and the price is too high." After having had a nap (those who make their living publishing in the Mac Web seldom actually "sleep"), my reaction has changed a bit to "the name is stupid, and the price is too high." All right, that's not much of a change, but my underlying reasoning has changed.

First up, let's deal with the name. The iPod is just silly. Not only does it invoke images of alien life forms crawling out of slimy cocoons to come and kill me, it frankly doesn't make sense. Why not something like iJam, iGroove, iListen, or the iPlay? I took all of about 20 seconds to rattle those off; one would think the brain trust at Apple could do a bit better. The iPod definitely doesn't do it for me.

Onto the price: as I said, I initially thought that US$399 for this device was just too much. It seemed that Apple's price was higher than the competition's pricing. I still think it's too much, but for different reasons. There is no doubt that the iPod's feature set make it "worth" US$399. By "worth" I mean that Apple simply couldn't charge any less for the device as it is and still maintain its target gross margins. It has FireWire, it charges over a FireWire connection with your computer (and, to quote Dell's spokes-character Stephen, that is SO cool!), it is tiny (as tiny as the similarly priced Firefly 5 GB drive from VST that uses the same Toshiba drive mechanism), it has the best interface on the market (from what I can tell), it will sync up with iTunes, and it has 20 minute skip protection. Those are all pretty much best-in-class features, folks.

On the other hand, if one can deal with a less-rich feature set, one can spend less money and get a 6 GB unit from Archos or Creative Labs. Neither unit is as cool, or frankly as good, as the iPod, but they are US$150 less. For the same US$399 as the iPod, one can get a 20 GB Nomad from Creative Labs, and that is very cool. Again, it doesn't have the feature set of the iPod, but it has so much more capacity.

Capacity is an issue for me, because I have not quite 6 GB of my CD collection (all legit) ripped, and I would like to rip the rest of it and be able to haul it around with me. With the iPod, I can't even take all of what I currently have, let alone the other 2/3 I have yet to rip. That hardly leaves me any room or need to sync up with iTunes when it looks like I will always have more music on my Mac than I can fit on my iPod.

With the exception of the size issue, the iPod clearly has features that justify the price point. My problem is that I don't think the market wants those features if it has to pay that much to get them. In other words, while the feature set may justify Apple's pricing, that doesn't mean that the market will bear the price. If Apple wanted to release *this* product with *these* specs, it should have waited until it could either offer a larger drive (Toshiba has 10 GB on its road map for this very cool drive mechanism), or the drive mechanism itself was cheaper.

US$399 for an iPod with a 10 GB capacity would definitely be worth it to me. US$299 would be worth it to me at 5 GB. That Apple can't offer either of those options does not mean that what it has offered makes sense. It would have been better to wait until it could do it right than to release something that will be dismissed by many.

At the same time, there is something that Apple could have done to make this right. The company could have offered a slightly larger 6 GB unit with a different, larger and cheaper drive mechanism. That unit could have a similar form factor, only larger, be USB powered, have the same interface, the same ability to use it as a hard drive, but without the ability to recharge it over the USB bus. At US$249, the same price as the other 6 GB units, or even US$279 for the Apple-factor, we would be having a whole other discussion. The debate wouldn't be on whether the iPod was overpriced, but rather which iPod you should get? The less expensive unit that matched or slightly exceeded the feature set of the competition, or the really cool unit that was so small you could fit it in your pocket and even recharge it over FireWire!

Can you see that shift in viewpoint in your head? People would be doing just what they are doing now, comparing the iPod to the competition, but with a clear-cut comparison between Apple's low-end iPod and the competition's offerings right there in front of us, the deluxe model (the same US$399 iPod that we actually have) would be the end-all, be-all. For those on a budget, you can always get the (still cool) low end model.

Alas, that is not what the company did, and we'll just have to see what happens. My armchair quarterbacking aside, Apple will probably still sell quite a few of these units. Heck, even with my whining, I'll probably get one if I can get it cheaper than US$399. I hate the speed of USB, and will sacrifice the ability to carry around my entire collection for the speed of FireWire if I have to. If I can get it at the right price, that is. If not, I'll wait for the 10 GB unit that will come sooner or later. I imagine that a lot of you are with me on that.

began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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