The AudioFile: Keep It Simple, Stupid

Image by Leah Perrotta
Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Few companies in the MP3 player business grasp this important principle, and it continues to bite them in the assets.

iRiver and SanDisk are feverishly trying to keep up the pace of feature bloat, while Archos and Creative are increasingly focusing on video players. Meanwhile, Sony is getting ready to throw in the towel, and still others (okay, Microsoft) should probably start thinking along the same lines.

More and more companies are turning away from MP3 players, since it’s now pretty much established that Apple owns that market and will for some time to come. They’re either jumping ship entirely or they’re focusing on video players, where Apple hasn’t really made its mark yet. (Repeat after me: The iPhone is still not the… err… “true” video iPod.)

Sense and Sansability
SanDisk — still number two behind Apple — has been on a tear since it got into the MP3 player biz, scoring big hits with its excellent distribution deals at places like Radio Shack and Best Buy. But what really drove those players off the shelves is the price and simplicity — and more recently with the Sansa e200, a little polish.

But SanDisk appears to be succumbing to feature bloat as well. The company’s first PMP, the Sansa View (introduced at CES 2007), was intended to be “easy to use with pretty basic features and functionality,” according to the company’s PR firm. It was due out in late spring, but the company recently shelved plans to release it.

SanDisk is mum on what they’re planning instead, but you can bet it’s going to be some sort of cross between the Sansa Connect (which has built-in WiFi) and the View, with just enough crammed in to keep it out of the hands of mainstream consumers.

SanDisk should stop pussyfooting around leverage its flash memory business to make a higher-capacity MP3 player along the lines of the full-size iPod — without trying to stuff the kitchen sink in it. Then they’d have a shot at creating an environment like the game console market where you actually have more than one company with significant market share.

Another one bites the dust
Not many people in the industry were surprised to hear that Sony’s MP3 player days are numbered. Rarely has a company been so good at alienating digital music consumers: Sony’s rootkit DRM debacle combined with its abominable Connect software/service couldn’t have had any other result.

It’s a shame, too, since Sony’s damn good at making hardware. In fact, the short-lived NW-HD5 was a great MP3 player — simple and very good at what it did. It was simply suffocated by Sony’s relentlessly restrictive software. What a tragedy for a company with so many marketing dollars available!

Video killed the MP3 star
Yesterday, Archos officially announced its Gen 05 line of portable media players. It seems that even the company that invented the MP3 player has abandoned music players in favor of do-it-all video products. (Granted, the new Archos 605 sure does look pretty sweet. Check back soon for my full review!)

So who are the remaining contenders? Creative had the best shot with its Zen Vision line, but their catalog is so diverse that they can’t seem to spend enough marketing dollars to back the right horse. If iRiver had any marketing money, the Clix might have taken off, but since they abandoned high-capacity players they’re pretty much out of the running.

Samsung has the most interesting lineup right now, with the K3 and K5 as its flagships, but I’m hearing rumblings of Bluetooth — the upcoming T9B — which will let you use your music player as a surrogate handset for your cell phone. It’s a nifty idea, but by the time the public understands what the hell to do with this, we’ll all be sporting implants anyway. Also, it’s a tough idea to sell when Sony Ericsson is making such good music phones.

Personally, I’m hoping for a retro backlash of gadgets that do one thing, but do it extremely well in a very small form factor at a reasonable price. In the meantime, for $600, that damn iPhone should be making me espresso and giving me a nice Shiatsu massage.