Did 2006 live up to your iPod expectations? Were you expecting more? What’s coming in 2007? Share your thoughts in the Comments thread below!
As we think back to last year’s iPod Year in Review, we can’t help but remember the optimism we felt going in to 2006: Apple Computer had for the entire year not only dominated the digital media player market, and popular mindshare, but was preparing us for a new year of even faster-paced innovations. If 2005 had been impressive, 2006 was going to be staggering.
Measured by total iPod and accessory sales volume, 2006 was a great year. But in terms of excitement, it was a disappointment. Apple’s brilliantly staggered 2005 new hardware launches weren’t repeated – one event saw the simultaneous release of mostly incremental upgrades to all three prior iPod models – and some of the iPod’s buzz fizzled as a consequence. Despite record-breaking sales – more iPods were sold in 2006 than from 2001-2005 combined, and the accessory economy grew to an estimated $2 billion – vocal Apple opponents managed to steal iPod thunder for their own products, even if they had to resort to dirty tricks to do so.
Our extended iPod history feature (Five Year Dynasty: iPod + iTunes) with 2006’s significant milestones can be found in our free 2007 iPod Buyers’ Guide; like last year, this Year in Review takes a more opinionated look at what went right and wrong over the past 12 months, finishing with a brief look ahead. Use the “Click here for the story” buttons below to read as much or as little as you prefer.
iPod and iTunes: A Year Too Predictable? (Click here for the story.)
Most of these predictions turned out to be accurate. Though Apple made only small changes to the iPod lineup prior to late in the year – a low-capacity 1GB nano was introduced – there were more considerable updates in September. At that point, Apple unveiled newly redesigned second-generation iPod nanos and shuffles, each with aluminum enclosures and better price-to-performance ratios than their predecessors. Five colored nano bodies were initially introduced, followed by a sixth, the beautifully rich PRODUCT (RED) Special Edition. The company also enhanced the fifth-generation iPod, delivering superior screen brightness, video battery life, a new library search feature, and a higher-capacity hard disk for the top-end model, all while dropping its price by $50. On the flip side, the company did not introduce two high-end features that had been widely expected – a larger video display or wireless functionality – and Motorola all but killed plans for post-ROKR iTunes Phones, releasing its SLVR L7 and RAZR V3i phones with decreasing enthusiasm, ultimately disappearing as a significant Apple partner by mid-year.
None of the iterative tweaking or Motorola weakness stopped the iPod’s sales momentum. As reported in October, 2006, Apple sold more than 39 million iPods in its 2006 fiscal year, which starts and ends three months before the 2006 calendar year, enough to more than double the iPod’s prior 2005 installed base. Despite increased demand, there were few reports of sell-outs, as the company improved its manufacturing and distribution to handle growing volumes of customers, especially in its own stores. Quarter after quarter, iPod hardware exceeded the prior year’s sales by impressive amounts, and the holiday 2006 quarter is expected to be the iPod’s best ever. However, we saw little evidence that the company was aggressively pursuing international sales to further bolster its numbers, a surprise given the number of countries in which the iPod doesn’t lead, or in which its leadership position is less concrete than in the United States.
Similarly, iTunes went through certain expected and unexpected changes. Its Front Row media interface did appear in more Macintosh computers – all but the Mac Pros – and a next-generation version of the software was previewed for a 2007 release. Now in version 7.0, iTunes’ library management and video playback interfaces were visually overhauled, while a multiple-file download manager and iPod software updater component were added. Its Music Store was rebranded to become the iTunes Store, as Apple rolled out digital sales of both feature-length movies and fifth-generation iPod games, and radically expanded the roster of popular television shows available for purchase. iTunes video downloads were upped in resolution from 320×240 to 640×480 – or 640×272 for 16:9 format films – and a new variable pricing model for films ($9.99 to $14.99), based on date of purchase relative to date of a movie’s release, was added to the Store.
Not all of the iTunes changes were positive.
In January, Apple unveiled the iTunes MiniStore, a screen-cluttering iTunes 6 feature designed to recommend Store purchases based on the content of your existing library, which the software would analyze for you. It was a feature no one had asked for, and many people found intrusive; the MiniStore was subsequently downplayed. And in rolling out iTunes 7.0, the company allowed too many bugs to slip through to the big-named release, with users reporting dramatic computer performance slowdowns, problems accessing their libraries, and other issues. Readers howled at the problems, and Apple responded with quick, if not complete fixes.
The company also surprised many people – including us – by demonstrating surprising complacence in the breadth of its international iTunes Stores offerings. Most likely for contractual reasons, legal television and movie downloads never materialized for iPods overseas during 2006, leaving prospective fifth-generation iPod owners outside the U.S. with little reason save capacity to prefer those models over nanos. Similarly, while iTunes Music Stores opened during 2005 in countries such as Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, 2006 saw only one such opening – New Zealand – and Apple has suggested that it is content with these markets, and not looking to test the waters in other potential hotspots, such as India, China, or South Korea.
Why would Apple press play, or even pause, after such an extended period of fast forwarding? The answer is probably in two parts: the company wasn’t ready to release the more advanced products believed to be in the pipeline, and perhaps didn’t feel that they were necessary given the popularity of prior iPod models. Business school students and professors believe that the iPod family is now in the “maturity” stage of its growth, where rapid innovation traditionally gives way to incremental change, yet that comparative stability is rewarded with steady sales. We’ll have to see whether this is accurate, or whether the company will re-ignite its fires in 2007 – CEO Steve Jobs has said that 2007 will be “one of the most exciting new product years in Apple’s history.”
Accessories: More, and More of the Same (Click here for the story.)
Most positive for the year were impressive expansions of the number and type of accessories being offered. Though official Apple estimates of “over 2,000” and “over 3,000” accessories initially seemed somewhat exaggerated, the market has caught up to those numbers – literally hundreds of different speakers alone are now available, a fact which has led to impressive consumer choice, but also more than a fair amount of confusion. New product genres, such as iPod-specific karaoke devices, portable video displays, security devices, video recorders, and wearable video displays, have emerged, too, expanding the iPod’s capabilities well beyond anything Apple could have initially imagined back in 2001.
Of course, Apple hasn’t stood still. In January, Apple surprised critics and developers alike by releasing the iPod Radio Remote, its first official acknowledgment that some iPod users wanted FM radio tuning functionality. Rather than including its own screen, the Radio Remote relied on a brand-new, proprietary tuning and station-saving interface found on the iPod’s display – a feature that third-party developers were not allowed to use in their own competing radio products. Similarly, Apple’s February release of the iPod Hi-Fi speaker system evoked a new Speakers menu option on the iPod, enabling more convenient access to the iPod’s speaker-specific screen and sound functionality. Again, this new iPod feature was locked to third-party developers – even ones participating in Apple’s Made For iPod licensing program.
These changes and others spooked a number of iPod developers during 2006, leading to a widespread belief that Apple intended to compete more aggressively with third-party companies for the accessory market’s growing revenue, and that it would use anti-competitive practices such as feature lock-outs to enhance its own products. By mid-year, companies such as Sandisk and Microsoft were seeking to replicate the iPod’s hardware and accessory model, and began to approach third-party developers with promises of additional promotion, more attractive business terms, and less contentious development relationships than Apple had offered.
As 2006 comes to a close, the outlook for continued growth of the iPod accessory market is murky. While there is no doubt that both Apple and small third-party developers will continue to focus on creating iPod-specific accessories in 2007, medium- to larger-sized third-party companies appear to be spreading their resources across competing platforms, discussed in greater detail below. There are also whispers of industry consolidation, as certain mid-sized companies are predicted to be on the verge of merging or disappearing entirely from the iPod accessory marketplace. Similarly, given the huge number of “me too” add-ons now out there, particularly in “easy-to-make” categories such as speakers, cases, and car accessories, it’s unclear whether we will continue to see hundreds more of these types of items, whether new players will enter and offer superior innovation, or whether less competitive old players will tire of low sales volumes and disappear.
The Rise of New iPod Competitors (Click here for the story.)
After several widely-acknowledged failed attempts to compete against the iPod and iTunes with its Network Walkmen and various iterations of its SonicStage music software, Sony’s iTunes Store competitor – Sony Connect – arrived in late 2005 to universally terrible reviews, yet continued to be pushed as the company’s only solution throughout 2006. While Sony attempted to re-direct its marketing and development efforts towards its Walkman phones and PlayStation-branded gaming and entertainment media hub products, fans of its music hardware continued to post workarounds and alternatives to SonicStage, and its proprietary Universal Media Disc portable optical disc format for movies disappeared from stores.
Creative Labs, maker of the Zen family of digital media players, went down but not out during 2006. Despite a highly publicized $100 million payday over a patent dispute with Apple – one which saw the companies cross-license certain of their media player technologies – Creative’s promotion of Zen-related products declined following the agreement, and the company happily announced its intention to develop accessories for the iPod. A widescreen version of its Zen Vision video player quietly appeared mid-year, and was barely noticed. Formerly seen as a legitimate, if much smaller, Apple rival, iRiver has essentially ceased marketing efforts in the United States, and the once-threatening Dell has exited the MP3 player market entirely. Similarly, competing MP3 player maker Philips announced a lineup of iPod-ready speaker systems, proving the value of the old maxim, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
The failure of any of these companies to successfully challenge the iPod has left the second, third, fourth, and fifth-place spots open to surprising new entrants. Absolutely unknown for music-related products only three years ago, memory chip maker SanDisk has become a second-place challenger to the iPod in sales, gaining market share with smart pricing of iPod nano and shuffle-alikes, plus some obnoxious marketing efforts. Companies such as Memorex, Walt Disney Company, and Creative Labs have been rounding out the top five, until the recent introduction of Microsoft’s Zune.
Based upon an existing media player developed by Toshiba, Zune aimed to challenge the full-sized iPod with a design that promised comparable storage space, battery life, and pricing, but also included a larger screen, wireless functionality, and a somewhat novel user interface. Over-hyped by various media outlets and paid viral marketers, Zune debuted in November, 2006 to mostly negative reviews, each praising certain individual elements of the product’s design, but ultimately concluding that neither the device nor its supporting software were up to par with Apple’s offerings. Thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign, the unit saw reasonable first-week sales – second-place 9% share to Apple’s 63% share – but immediately fell to 2.1% in the following week, as Apple wrestled off new price cuts from Sandisk.
The emergence of Microsoft and Sandisk as Apple’s primary competitors was perhaps the iPod’s biggest surprise in 2006, and a suggestion of the risks Apple engenders by failing to keep up with its past pace of innovation. Had a more capable video iPod – one with a larger screen and/or wireless functionality – emerged at the company’s September event, everyone might have been spared months of discussion over the impending battle between iPods and Zunes; the point would have been moot. And had Apple released a more significantly updated iPod nano – or been more aggressive in pricing – it might have already dispatched SanDisk, which continues to win over cost-conscious consumers despite its lack of so many of Apple’s widely-acknowledged advantages.
From a consumer’s perspective, the presence of iPod competitors is a good thing: these alternatives force Apple to innovate, reasonably price products, and advertise in a way that will grow and cement the business for future generations of iPod owners. These competitors may even improve the market for iPod accessories, by providing developers with alternative revenue streams and other options for products Apple may reject, as well as favorable business terms that could lead Apple to improve its own practices when they get out of hand. That said, it’s most likely not in Apple’s best interest to inspire the Microsofts of the world to stay in the marketplace: beyond the fact that such companies are willing to resort to shady tactics to buy their way into markets, they can create VHS-versus-Betamax-style trouble for consumers as well, offering bad deals to certain partners, and thereby needlessly fracturing the availability of content for an otherwise popular platform. It’s our hope that Apple acts quickly, and wisely, to put stakes in the hearts of its few remaining vampires this coming year.
What’s Next? (Click here for the story.)
iTV: If Apple can be taken at its word on one product, which we strongly believe it can be, its next major move into the home will be the renamed iTV, which we’ve previewed already based on its unusual advance introduction this past September. From what’s widely known at this point, iTV will wirelessly stream iTunes audio, video, and synchronized photo content from your home computer for enjoyment through a home TV/AV system, and will be able to access movie trailers and possibly other content through a home’s wireless Internet connection. iTV is believed to contain enough memory or hard disk space to store at least a small amount of content without continued connection to a computer, but the specifics of this feature are unclear, as are the other justifications for its announced $299 price point.