iPod Overseas Report: Singapore

Read Parts I, III, and IV: iPod Overseas Report: Tokyo, iPod Overseas Report: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Backstage:// Asian Gadgetry and the Future of iPod.

If Hollywood’s more optimistic visions are realized, cities of the future will be large, yet clean. They will be covered in brand names and logos; populous, prosperous, and capitalist. Thus they will, in short, look almost exactly like the better parts of Singapore, a city-state that has emerged as a high-tech mecca of sorts in Southeast Asia. You may recall the name from tabloid headlines – public canings of vandals, executions of drug traffickers, and so on – and the reasons for its strict laws become obvious once you’re here: this is a city on the edge of tomorrow, safe, clean, and forward-looking, so the government here wants to keep it that way.

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Yet like Tokyo, Japan, Singapore is a place with multiple personalities, here multicultural to an impressive extreme. There is a downtown city core of British colonial halls and impressive skyscrapers, including buildings by I.M. Pei. And there are modern shopping centers such as Suntec City Mall, Orchard Road, and Marina Square. But then the subway connects to less modern areas, ones with tremendous ethnic personality – Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street.

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Not surprisingly, each one has shops and restaurants reflecting their distinctive cultural characters. But this is a melting pot nation, where massive, government-subsidized international food courts called Food Centres place Halaal Islamic food stands only a stone’s throw away from shops offering Pig’s Brain Soup and pitchers of Tiger Beer.

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As in other foreign capitals we’ve visited, the citizens here are in the midst of a switch from traditional CD-based music to compressed digital media, and one of the leading local sponsors is Creative Technology, makers of the Zen series of portable media players. It’s probably fair to characterize Creative as Singapore’s favorite son in the same way that Sony is Japan’s – aside from the fact that its headquarters are here, and that it runs a local iTunes-like music service called SoundBuzz, Creative’s presence on the streets is considerable. Local stores carry the full range of Zen players in a way that few stores in US or Japan do, including everything from low-end flash players to the latest Zen Vision: M, Creative’s clone of the fifth-generation iPod.

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(As we’ve had some time to play with the Vision: M, we’ll note as a brief aside that it’s a pretty successful iPod wannabe; despite comparative photographs floating around on the Internet, the differences between its screen and the iPod’s are not pronounced, and it has a couple of annoying interface issues, but its additional functionality (FM tuner, built-in microphone, additional video standards support) is undeniably a selling point. Still, we haven’t seen anyone actually using them – or other Zens – outside of stores during our travels. The 30GB Vision: M sells for around a $40 premium here over the 30GB iPod.)

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Yet these stores, and even resellers largely focused on Sony products here, also almost invariably carry something else: iPods. Frankly, we were surprised at just how much of a presence the iPod family has in Singapore, given Creative’s established position and the continued appearance of cheap devices from comparatively obscure companies. True, there are many electronics shops in Singapore that sell these MP3 players, and a good number selling the newer thing – MP4 video players, typically tiny ones. But comparatively few of them are selling only these devices, and not iPods as well.

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Gobs of iPods. Stores here have lots of them – at least, nanos and full-sized models. As in Tokyo, where we ultimately saw a total of one person (a child) wearing an iPod shuffle during our travels, the lowest-end iPod appears to be very rare here, both in stores and on the streets. We saw a bunch in Little India’s 24-hour Mustafa Centre, but not elsewhere. Rather, the nano appears to be the inspirational iPod of choice, as we’ve seen a couple of different “win iPod nano” contests sponsored by major stores or restaurants.

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What sort of stores are carrying iPods? We’ve seen them all over – in Mustafa Centre, tens of stores in the six-story mall called Sim Lim Square (below), and dotting the electronics merchants on famous Orchard Road. The sheer number of iPods in stock is somewhat amazing in that Japanese and American resellers seem to be having such a hard time getting them, yet unlike the Japanese Microsoft Xbox 360 story we relayed, the issue here doesn’t appear to be a lack of demand: wherever we walked, people were checking out MP3 players and asking specifically about the iPod and accessories. Prices here are a bit higher than in the USA and Japan – there are $35 premiums for each full-sized iPod, for instance – and unlike other devices, there’s no major discount to be had through hardware haggling.

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We’ve also seen a couple of interesting differences between the Singaporean trade in iPods and the Japanese/American ones: those accessories, especially good ones, aren’t anywhere near as widespread here as elsewhere. Taking the legitimate accessories first, we’ve been shocked by the presence of JBL’s Creatures virtually everywhere we’ve looked – they appear to be one of the most popular major brand speakers, store-wise at least, we’ve seen here. A more than fair number of stores also stock JBL’s On Stage, Altec Lansing’s inMotion series, and Logic 3’s i-Station. One even had XtremeMac’s MicroBlast for iPod nano, which we have yet to see in a store in the United States.

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The bigger surprise is just how widespread no-name brands are here, and how much they’re copying well-known products. We’ll put aside SonicGear’s i-Steroid 1 and 2 vacuum tube speaker systems, which duplicate the layout of a 4G/5G iPod’s front Click Wheel for bass and volume controls. We’ll also ignore the company’s 2GO i-3000, which is a lot like JBL’s On Stage, but cheaper and cheaper-looking. These products are merely derivative by comparison with some of the other stuff we’ve seen, and they’re being sold in an authorized retailer (Apple Centre) in Sim Lim Square.

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The bigger problems are the iPod and nano accessories below, found at Gadget Centre in Sim Lim Square. Like the accessory that looks exactly like Apple’s official iPod nano Armband, but isn’t, because a company copied it and its packaging pretty closely.

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And then there’s the company that has taken the name from Speck’s SkinTight cases, and used it on its own series of cases that sit right next to the real thing on another store’s racks. There are at least as many of the green-packaged non-Speck cases as the orange original SkinTights.

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Singapore isn’t known for knock-offs in the way that China is, but it’s obvious that a lot of these junky clones are coming out of Chinese and Taiwanese factories, some worse than others. Most of the low-end accessories we’ve seen in the past have been of two types – charging cables and silicone cases – but these companies appear to be evolving, copying everything from accessory packaging to designs. As it’s already had to fight a few iPod cloners, we’d expect Apple to have considerable challenges ahead in 2006 stemming the rise of these new accessory copycats, as well. On the bright side, companies such as Belkin and Griffin have a decent presence here already, and do not appear to have been cloned… yet.

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Though the answer could be “yes” because of Creative’s presence here alone, it remains to be seen whether Singapore is strategically important enough to Apple to focus on as another iPod beachhead in Asia. At the moment, there’s very little direct iPod advertising here – mostly posters in stores – and no iTunes Music Store. Local stores have comparatively sophisticated point-of-sale displays for the Zen product lines (below), and cheap, seemingly hand-crafted display cases for iPods. It says something that these stores have bothered to make the effort on Apple’s behalf: their customers are obviously requesting more. The total space devoted to iPods and accessories is considerable, and their placement near the front of stores, at eye or waist level, is generally quite impressive. Some stores have really nice displays to highlight the iPod (above), even as they also try to sell its competitors.

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We hope you enjoyed this look at the iPod world in Singapore. Our previous iPod Overseas Report on Tokyo, Japan is still online. Want to contribute a report from your city? E-mail jeremy (at) iLounge.com. Otherwise, we will look forward to your comments.