Last week, Apple executives announced that the number of iPod accessories now stands at “over 2,000,” up from “over 1,000” in September: that’s double the options in only four months’ time. Is this good news for iPod owners? Not entirely. Increased competition is great, but as everyone knows, quantity does not equal quality. There’s a lot of junk out there now – more than ever before.

From what you’ve been telling us, fatigue is setting in. People are tired of wading through hundreds of products to find the few that are worthwhile. They’re also put off by companies that are using underhanded tactics to promote their offerings. So today, iLounge is announcing several important changes to our coverage of the iPod accessory marketplace, and filling our readers in on some dirty stuff that’s been happening behind the scenes. You can sum up our plans this way: “If it’s not on iLounge, there’s a reason.”

Who We Are, And Why

If you haven’t seen our About Us page, here’s the short version of the iLounge story. The site is owned by Dennis Lloyd, who was one of the first people to buy an iPod in 2001, and created the ‘Lounge way before there was an “iPod economy.” He loves iPods, music, and the entire iLounge community. The rest of the staff here feels the same. We all joined Dennis because we wanted to help a growing family of iPod lovers get honest, independent information about the world’s best music players. That is still our number one goal today.

A lot has changed over the past four years. We have continued to cover “all things iPod” while the word “iPod” has evolved to include recording, text and photo display, and now video playback. We have reviewed iPod and iTunes products from more than 200 different companies, and referenced countless numbers more, developing a reputation for comprehensiveness and objective criticism. Consequently, iLounge is now visited by approximately four million people per month, making this the leading destination for iPod-related discussion and information online.

Some things have stayed the same. We remain 100% editorially independent from Apple and third-party developers. iLounge is our only business, and we have no interest in selling you any iPod services or accessories. Like other publications, we accept advertisements from numerous companies, avoiding editorial interference both through this diversification and internal separation of our business and editorial sides. But you probably didn’t know that we have actively turned down proposals to change this. Many companies have asked us to actually market and sell their iPod offerings. We are also routinely offered the opportunity to consult, for fees, on iPod accessories still under development. Though these opportunities would financially benefit us, we’ve said no, because we do not believe that they are ultimately in our readers’ best interests.

Our commitment to our readers has become even deeper over time. We, like you, are consumers of iPod products, and don’t like to see companies using shady tactics to gain business. If we’re uncomfortable with a company or concerned about the products or services they’re marketing, we limit or stop coverage of their products under a policy we announced early last year. Additionally, we turn down their advertising. Again, it would be easier and financially beneficial if we looked the other way, but we want to do right by our readers. Even though the ads appear elsewhere instead, we sleep better at night knowing that we haven’t assisted them.

In the absence of positive editorial or advertising options on iLounge, certain companies have tried to use sleazy tactics such as viral marketing to reach you on the site. We actively hate a form of viral marketing called astroturfing* – when company representatives pose anonymously as unbiased readers to promote their products or smear competitors in discussion forums. Most companies do not stoop to this level, because we have provided a respectable alternative: company representatives can identify themselves and speak honestly to our readers. But some desperate people are trying to create positive (or negative) buzz any way they can. As a consequence, we have already had to ban a handful of companies for using viral marketing tactics, and we’ve been upgrading the site to make it easier to find and eliminate other viral marketers. While we finish our work on this, please take extremely positive or negative user-submitted comments and discussion forum posts with a grain of salt. They frequently come from people with agendas.

What Else is Changing?

For the first time in iPod accessory history, quantity is beginning to prevail over quality. In recent reports from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and several cities in Asia, we have noted that the iPod accessories market is rapidly becoming saturated with me-too products – everything from hundreds of lookalike cases and $2 cables to outright clones of existing accessories. We have mixed feelings about these developments. Price and feature competition between quality products is a good thing. But design theft and an increased number of flimsy, “you get what you pay for” options are both bad things. As developers have recently put it, the market is becoming one where “buyers beware,” and as buyers, we don’t like that one bit.

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iLounge’s editors have spent the last few months discussing ways that we can help our readers continue to get important product information without digging through piles of garbage. Now we’ve made the following decisions about our future coverage of two types of accessories – iPod covers (cases/armbands/stickers), and everything else.

Changes to coverage of iPod cases, armbands, and stickers

iPod cases have evolved a lot over the last four years, from functional but boring little pouches to everything from designer label fashions to virtually unbreakable hard shells. Yet while features and pricing are important, the number one thing that makes someone want or not want most iPod cases is appearance. The same is true with stickers, less so with armbands. Regardless, appearance is an entirely personal, subjective decision.

So our case reviews are shifting to a picture-heavy, text-light format, and we are doing away with rating these products (generally) on appearance. Instead, we will be rating them on five objective factors – Build Quality, Ease of Use, Special Features, Protectiveness, and Value – criteria that we started to test in capsule case reviews a few months ago, now enhanced with easy and clearly defined 10-point ratings for each factor. This will lead to even more coverage of available iPod covers, without the need for unnecessary text. If you like the way a case, sticker, or armband looks in pictures, now you’ll easily be able to see how it stacks up to similar options on features. We will also be introducing a new photo-heavy search engine that will help you quickly find options that match your exact wants and needs.

Changes to coverage of other iPod accessories

If you didn’t know that we’ve tested and reviewed more iPod accessories than anyone else in the world, that’s probably because we don’t brag about it. But it’s true. We now have a storage facility filled with classic accessories, packaging, and manuals, and new boxes arrive four to six days a week, every week. As a matter of policy, we do not sell any of the accessories we buy or receive, and instead keep them around for comparative testing and reference, facts which have made the collection grow to mammoth proportions. That said, none of this means that you really want to hear about all of this stuff – trust us, you don’t.
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Based on reader comments and our desire to make your accessory hunting easier, we’ve decided to become more selective about what we actively cover. This doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop covering small companies, or focus even most of our attention on big ones. We’ll continue to report any important announcement we hear, and bring you the same First Looks and comprehensive Reviews you’ve come to expect. But we are going to start championing products that represent breakthroughs or significant improvements on price, features, quality, and/or design, and pay much less attention to me-too products.

This also doesn’t mean that we’re dropping the insight or criticism you’ve told us you appreciate. We will continue to review widely available products from major vendors regardless of whether they’re good or not, because readers want to know the truth about what’s out there. In the rare case that we haven’t covered an important product ourselves, you can assume that there’s a good reason. Check our Accessory Discussion Forums to see what iLounge readers are saying, or send an e-mail to Ask iLounge. We’ll let you know if a vendor is trying to avoid negative reviews, or whatever else might be happening.

Our Goals

From what we’ve seen, the next stage of the iPod’s growth will be marked by a dramatic increase in the amount of junk that’s marketed to iPod owners, and felt that we had two choices: the easy and lucrative “say nothing” route, or the harder “take a stand” route. We’re taking a stand, but also trying to strike the right balance to make sure that good companies and products get the spotlight they deserve. The flip side of the “if it’s not on iLounge, there’s a reason” concept is that we’ll do our best to make sure that any worthwhile iPod product or service is covered in some way on the site. We want to see good companies and good products connect with good people.

As we continue to grow throughout 2006, we will be guided by a single agenda – to do what’s best by you, our readers. We hope that this editorial has answered any questions you might have, and continue to appreciate your comments and suggestions, both below and in e-mails to jeremy (at) ilounge.com (editorial inquiries only) and dennisl (at) ilounge.com (business/advertising inquiries only). Thanks for reading.

* Added “astroturfing” for clarification.