Part 2: Asian gadgetry and the Future of iPod?
Part 2 of our Backstage flood touches on some noteworthy Asian gadgets and trends that have the potential to influence the course of the iPod’s evolution in 2006.
By clicking on Read More, below, you’ll find information and photos on Sony’s NetJuke NAS-M7HD computer-less CD ripper, music downloader and stereo system, wired “display remote controls,” BenQ’s P50 Smartphone (with hotspot network functionality), the next evolutions of mainstream cell phones (video, high-res photo, and music), and by reader request, third-party Asian Apple retailers such as iShop 21 and the Apple Centre at Funan IT Mall.
One of the things I touched upon briefly in our reports from Singapore and Malaysia was the incredible amount of pure crap that was being sold for iPods overseas - knock-offs, plus low-end case and electronic products that sometimes rear their heads outside of Asia thanks to smaller companies looking to become “iPod accessory makers.” Unlike in the U.S., where there’s almost no chance that this stuff would find its way into Apple’s stores, the company is largely represented overseas by partner companies that work as country-specific resellers, operating “Apple Centres,” “iPod Stations,” and the like. These partners are more willing than Apple to stock the low-end stuff and knock-offs - even of Apple’s own products - right alongside the originals. It’s sort of amazing when you first see it, and then it’s sort of disturbing.
But there were also some really interesting things taking place on the edges of the iPod world in Asia, products from consumer electronics companies such as Sony, and cell phone manufacturers from Nokia to Motorola, which could inspire the next phase of iPod and iTunes growth. Let’s start with Sony. The company was spending a surprising amount of money to promote the latest edition of its NetJuke (model NAS-M7HD), a component stereo system with integrated MiniDisc and CD drives, a 40GB hard disk drive, 4.3” color LCD screen, and Internet connection. The styling is ridiculous, but the concept is really interesting.
You drop the NetJuke into a place in your home or office as a companion to your MiniDisc player or Network Walkman. The unit’s internal hard drive, screen, and Internet connection provide a way for you to purchase and download music from Sony’s online Connect music store without using your computer - the files get stored on the internal drive. Alternately, you can use the integrated CD drive to rip your discs into digital tracks, then dump them onto MiniDiscs, or via the USB port to your attached Network Walkman, or a PSP. It’s what iTunes would be if you didn’t need a computer (...mostly…) to do any of the work for you.
Sony’s price tag: “open” MSRP of $675, discounted street price around $600. Would we buy one? No - sticker shock aside, who really wants to buy music from Sony or use its portable players? But as an iPod accessory, we could see this solving a bunch of problems for people: simplified CD ripping, music downloading, and music storage all in one device. If the hard disk was big enough, it could make frequent syncing/refreshing of a nano or shuffle’s content a much more plausible solution for people. The only problem is that no low-end iPod consumer is going to cough up anything close to this price for a solution like this. At a high price point, it makes the most sense for people who need it the least - those who already have iPods with 30GB or 60GB hard drives and color screens, plus obviously computers with CD ripping drives and Internet connections. Anyway, the idea is interesting, and done right, it could be very cool.
We also couldn’t help but notice the cool MiniDisc wired “display remote controls” some people were using in Japan. The idea of a display remote is nothing new - the iPod arguably missed the boat big time on this over the last several years - but it’s worth mentioning because a number of iPod accessory makers, such as ABT with its recently announced iJet Two-Way, have already been working on similar concepts in the wireless area. If you like to wear your iPod on your neck, this probably won’t matter to you, but I strongly prefer to carry a hard disk-based iPod in my pocket, and have a remote at chest level. These display remotes accomplish that. There are many ways this concept could evolve if iPods become semi-wireless in 2006, but a fully wired display remote would work perfectly well right now for many people.
Then there’s the whole mobile phone thing. Obviously there are a number of Motorola products (new ROKRs, the RAZR V3i, SLVR V7, etc.) with planned iTunes support, and we started to see early versions of some of these products (the first-gen SLVR, for instance) trickling into stores in Malaysia and Singapore while we were there. Plus, as Motorola’s Ed Zander divulged in 2005, Apple’s working on its own “smart phone,” with features presently uncertain.
Mainstream and “smart” phones represent two distinct market segments over in Asia. Business people seem to be buying the smart phones, which have basically co-opted most of the features from PDAs, including their operating systems. Microsoft’s Pocket PCs have evolved into Windows Mobile smartphones, ranging from Motorola’s MotoQ to HP and myriad other companies’ products, and then there are the Palm-based phones, Linux phones, Symbian phones, and so on. First shown early in 2005, Asia’s BenQ was heavily promoting a phone called P50 that works on GSM and GPRS cell phone networks while you’re on the go, then switches into 802.11b mode at hot spots to let you make free VoIP calls with Skype. Bluetooth, Infrared, an integrated camera (sadly 1.3MP), and Windows Mobile support make it really cool conceptually, but the reviews of its performance have been mixed to poor. If Motorola’s right and Apple’s leaning in this direction, whatever it releases could be seriously exciting… though probably expensive.
The other segment, mainstream phones, is getting interesting for different reasons. Companies such as Nokia are in the process of transitioning to higher-resolution internal screens, which looked absolutely awesome on the N90 cameraphone we played with for a while. With 352x416 resolution - higher than that of the iPod 5G’s screen, but in a smaller package (2.13”), the N90’s display makes photos, video, and menu text seem great by phone standards. Many of the new phones can record video (in MPEG-4 format, no less), and MP3 playback functionality is popping up in a large number, as well.
Sony has been aggressively expanding its Walkman Phone line overseas - you’ve probably already heard of the W800, a candybar-style competitor to the ROKR that basically trashes Motorola’s product, but now there are the lower end W550/W600, and the new high-end W900, both swivel-phone designs, the latter with 3G support. These phones include MP3 players, FM radio tuning (the W800 even has RDS text-over-radio support), video recording, and Bluetooth support - the camera in the 800 and 900 models is a very good 2 megapixel one for stills. We picked up the K750i - identical except on coloration to the W800 - for around $300 in Singapore.
Even if you don’t want one of these phones, you can’t help but be amazed by the huge floor presence of mobile phone stores overseas, some dedicated to one brand or carrier, but an amazing number selling whatever phone or contract you might be looking for. Many of the smaller shops are on the shady side, but medium- to larger-sized ones in malls are pretty impressive. Imagine Apple kiosks all over the place selling iPods, and you’ll begin to get an idea of how these cell phone companies sell hundreds of millions of units every year - the iPod’s still in the mid tens of millions.
We won’t get into the details on these super-premium Vertu phones - Nokia’s luxury line, with gemstone keys and precious metal bodies - but they’re interesting to look at. Sure, Nokia probably sells one every week or two, but they’re pretty slick.
Finally, there’s the future of iPod retail overseas. A few readers wrote and asked us to discuss Singapore’s iShop 21 and high-end shopping centers like the Funan IT Mall. Here are a few photos and words about each.
Independently owned and operated (though an official Apple Reseller), iShop 21 is reputed to be the largest Apple retail store in Asia, but by our count, it’s at least second in floor space to Apple’s own flagship store in Ginza, Japan. It’s highly, highly similar to an Apple Store in every conceivable way, which is mostly impressive in that it takes a lot of work and attention to detail to pull off an Apple-like experience without being Apple. And yes, that’s the iLounge page on the store’s front monitor.
The major changes from an Apple Store are an integrated small restaurant (well, cafe) on iShop 21’s right-hand side, and fairly substantial displays of classic or rare Apple products, and iPod-related collectibles. A case on the left side of the store holds rare Macintosh computers, plus a Giorgio Armani and Armani Exchange-engraved 4G iPod. The black iKub stands we saw in the store were also the first we’ve ever seen in that color, but they may just have been painted locally for display. But iShop 21 also had a huge - and we mean huge - collection of other rare Kubrick products, including numerous Be@rbricks for iPod mini, iKub for iPod shuffle, and the full-sized iKub for iPod. These aren’t easy to find these days, so when we saw more than a wall full of boxes at iShop 21, we were surprised.
By Singapore standards, iShop 21 had more than a fair amount of iPod accessories, though the ones we hadn’t seen in the States were generally nichey Japanese stuff. One of the more interesting examples was this set of iVault-like metal cases for the iPod shuffle, which actually included their own screwdrivers; there were also some unique iPod stands there.
Funan IT Mall is a high-rent shopping center with a collection of stores that sell iPods at pretty close to their suggested retail prices. For potential iPod owners, the reason to come here is to find an authorized Apple retailer with a modest bundled deal on an iPod plus an accessory. The only real standout thing at this mall was its abundance of Apple-related signage - the most we saw for Macs and iPods anywhere in Singapore, by a wide measure, because of an Apple Center located inside the place.
The signs were semi-typical Apple stuff - a “white Christmas” tree formed from a Mighty Mouse cable, “15,000 Christmas Carols in your pocket,” and so on. It was all nice, but not super-memorable, hence its omission from the original report.
Why mention it here? If anything, it suggests one direction that independent Apple resellers around the world can take if they want to keep selling Apple products: parrot Apple’s style and pricing in malls/cities where Apple doesn’t have much of an official presence. In our view, this is only a good idea until Apple starts building its own store nearby, at which point you either have to change your pricing or just go out of business, like all those U.S. resellers that sued when Apple Stores started to grow in number. So maybe the future of Apple retail overseas is… just Apple.
Part of that process, of course, will require Apple to learn what’s important and different in local markets overseas. The company knows, for instance, that Yoshida & Co’s Porter series of bags and cases (above, shown for Sony PSP) are really popular in Japan, and that there are other accessories and marketing differences requiring special regional attention, beyond just linguistic ones. And we’d guess that it’s learning through experience that certain models of iPods - say, the expensive ones - don’t sell as well in countries with low income levels. Independent retailers are helping to blaze the trail by conducting tests in these far-away places; hopefully the good ones will still be able to participate in the iPod’s growth (more than U.S. ones did) as Apple’s official presence increases across the world.
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