iPods: The MP3 experience killer

SUMMARY: The MP3 industry is stagnant, with every player either an iPod or an iPod clone. It needs much better tag management and synchronisation. Sadly, we probably won’t get it because few companies have the money and motivation to take on Apple.

From my (made-up) diary

April, 2000: Working for a computer firm in London, I’m holding a Diamond Rio 1GB MP3 player for the first time. It weighs a metric ton (approximately) and the battery life lasts just enough for the bus ride home.

April, 2001: Hello Apple iPod with your smooth wheel and rounded edges. This thing is smaller, lighter, lasts longer, AND is easier to use. The future is here and this portable music thing will go on getting better and better, year after year.

April, 2008: I hate you Apple iPod. You are slow, you regularly crash, and managing MP3s between you and my computer is an experience from hell. The iPod may have been good to Apple’s shareholders, but it’s terrible for someone who just wants to listen to music.

This is innovation?

What happened to the future?

A portion of the blame clearly goes to the anti-21st century entertainment industry, who would sue a foetus if it heard an MP3.

But Apple is stuck with early 1990s marketing practices, stifling innovation and competition by handcuffing iTunes customers to iPods.

iPod Problems

Digital music players like the iPod are primarily about playing digital music. Sure, they include video and photo functions too, but the main focus is on the music.

So why is it still so hard to maintain a music library that connects my iPod to my hard drive? In theory, iTunes automatic synchronisation should do this for me, but there are three huge problems.

iTunes: Bloatware

Firstly, iTunes is a monster of an application. MediaMonkey and Winamp both beat iTunes on features, using a third of the resources.

  iTunes Winamp MediaMonkey
Download filesize (default option) 57MB 6.5MB 9.08MB
System Memory 45MB 20MB 15MB

Apple’s marketing policy is partly to blame – bundling irrelevant software as part of the iPod manager. That’s right – Apple uses the same nefarious tactic that it attacks Microsoft for using.

Even more egregious is iTunes’ ‘determining gapless playback’ feature. There is no way to tell iPod that I know which tracks need gapless playback, and not to do it automatically. Hence, this process starts every time I open iTunes, hanging my system and never reaching the end.

I have to use an alternative to play music on Windows, which is MediaMonkey. But even this breaks when trying to transfer my music to the iPod itself.

Copying Music from Computer to iPod

Transferring music from my computer to my iPod, regardless of the software used, simply doesn’t work. I have used iTunes, MediaMonkey, Winamp, EphPod, YamiPod – and that was just on Windows. The most music I managed to copy was around 5GB – I have an 80GB iPod. Any more, and it started making weird noises, requiring a format and reset just to work.

To get to 50% filled, I had to use GTKPod on Linux, but even here, it hangs when I try to add more.

Apple won’t provide an exchange or refund, I guess because they don’t care. They know I’m stuck with them anyway, because I have iTunes tracks and there is no better alternative.

MP3 Tags

With so many MP3s, I need to be able to browse the files effectively, based on a whole range of things I feel about a song. However, there iPod’s tag system has deep flaws.

First, I can’t set multiple tags in the same field. I can’t see The White Stripes both under ‘indie’ and ‘rock’: I have to choose one or the other.

This is even more annoying with artists. I have a duet album (‘Raising Sands’) with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, but I also have other Robert Plant music, and other Alison Krauss music. I want Raising Sands to come up when I look at either artist, but that’s not possible with the iPod.

The whole world of free tagging seems to have passed by Apple. Imagine Flickr where you could set only 1 tag per photo, or Wikipedia where articles must be in only one category. Since the iPod uses its own database, its even more frustrating that they don’t allow this.

Second, I want to add and label my own fields in that database. I could add ‘mood’ as a field and then browse by that. If somebody else has lots of audiobooks, they could add a ‘book genre’ field.

In both these cases there are ways around it. I have built a playlist of all Alison Krauss music and all Robert Plant music, for example. But this requires me to keep the list updated, and it doesn’t scale when you have 1,000 artists and no ‘search playlists’ function.

Similarly, I use the ‘composers’ field to store my mood settings. It sort of works, but means I can’t use that particular field with classical music.

These missing features underpin what’s wrong with portable music. In a more competitive market, features like this would be added to increase sales by product differentiation. But Apple sets the standard for digital music, and hence doesn’t need to upgrade its players. Instead it increases sales of content like TV shows, movies and games.


Apple’s dominance of both the music download and the music player markets appears to give it a stranglehold on the market. A very large proportion of iPod customers that buy legal music will end up in buying it from iTunes, simply due to lack of awareness that there is any other option.

I could surmise that the music industry doesn’t want a serious iTunes competitor, who would push down prices and profit margins. (They don’t want iTunes either, but at least some recognise that they have no choice.) This gives Apple an easier ride in signing big bands like Radiohead and The Beatles.

Peer to peer networks are the elephant in the room here. These, and not iTunes, are the most popular place to download music. They have all the artists on iTunes, and the file format is MP3, which works on all mainstream players. So Apple is not quite so dominant after all.

Why, then, has nobody developed a player with better features than the iPod, based around the MP3 file format?

Inertia is a powerful force. For the majority of people, an iPod is the same thing as an MP3 player. Other manufacturers develop iPod clones that work the same, look the same, and cost the same.

Another reason is that there’s nobody with enough motivation and cash. The main candidates include:

  • Microsoft: They launched the Zune (one of those iPod clones), but failed to grab much market share. Microsoft could use Windows and Media Player to give better integration, but this would raise eyebrows in regulators already imposing big competition fines.
  • Sony: They have their own line-up of shiny curvy iPod wannabes. Unfortunately, the software is even worse than iTunes – God only knows how. Plus, Sony is also a content provider, with Columbia, MGM and Sony-BMG. Would Warner, EMI and Universal be happy handing over market-dominance to one of their main competitors?
  • Google: They have deep pockets, seem to be interested in every single market, and are already developing Android, a software platform for mobile phones. But an MP3 player does not need a connection to the outside world to function, so its CPC advertising model might not work so well. It’s an outside bet, that just could come to pass.
  • Amazon: They’ve already got a foothold in the MP3 and movie download market. Plus, they recently entered the hardware market with the Kindle, an electronic reading device. Could they launch a combined ereader-MP3 player? Maybe, but probably not. They already make a lot of money selling MP3 players, making it very risky.
  • Nokia: With the iPhone, Apple have taken a big chunk out of Apple’s profits. Going on the attack by getting into Apple’s market might be an interesting strategy, but there’s a lot for Nokia to do. Their phones already have basic MP3 functionality, but nothing to seriously differentiate from Apple. Their only attempt to diversify their product range was with the N-gage, a gaming platform designed to compete with the Nintendo DS. However, it’s an expensive flop that will probably make them think twice about going after Apple. The same logic applies to Motorola, Samsung, LG, and other phone manufacturers: they probably don’t have the appetite for the risk right now.
  • Winamp: Owned by AOL, who themselves are owned by Time Warner, are one of the most popular music players on computers, the original software to play MP3s. This is more hope than expectation, but if Winamp could put its software onto an MP3 player we’d have something like a good MP3 player. Now there’s a thought.

Predictions (or Hopes) for the Future

My best guess is that the iPod will remain the dominant player, with all its flaws, and us users will keep on buying it and complaining. Only when some new technology emerges will the iPod be swept away, in the same way as Sony with the Walkman. I just hope it happens soon.


  1. I agree – especially the part about multiple tags. I also don’t know why there isn’t a decent interface to add songs to ad-hoc playlists when I’m listening to them, and then sync the playlist back to my computer. I suspect that part of the problem is rooted in the standards for MP3 tagging, but Apple’s never had a problem with “creative interpretation” before…

  2. Very true. The data is held inside a database, that is populated by the MP3 tags. When you copy it back onto the computer, it can work the other way, with the database changing the tag name.

  3. “Could they launch a combined ereader-MP3 player? Maybe, but probably not. ”

    The Amazon Kindle is an eReader and MP3 player, as is the Sony Reader.

    eBook Reporter

  4. @Jim LaRoche – thanks for the clarification on the Kindle, I didn’t know about that.

    I did a bit more reading and although it does play MP3s, it’s not really an MP3 player in the sense I’m talking about in the article. You can’t select which song you want to play, even.

    Sony Reader: I should have mentioned that they have it. I haven’t seen it, but remember a review saying it’s a bad ereader and worse MP3 player. Is that true?

  5. Somebody sent me a message to say that the copying problems are because the iPod MUST use FAT32 to be compatible with Windows.

    Erm, I use Windows, and my hard drives are formatted to NTFS. Plus, I also have Linux and would be happy to have an EXT4 formatted iPod. Whatever works.

    This is for Apple to fix, and not blame on other companies.

  6. Gripes and Gripes but everyone has one. They are doing something right just not everything. I have my gripes about it myself.

  7. I’m so going to seek that out! Thanks for the info!

  8. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Righter!

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