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Portable media players—generic fashion statements?

Posted: 03.20.06

Did you ever stop to think about all the portable media players we have? I'm not even a media freak and I have several. My phones, for example, will play MP3 tunes for me, if I wanted them to. Kathleen has a Rio flash MP3 player, and I have a generic USB flash memory MP3 player and a pretty blue Zen disk-based MP3 player (with FM radio). I also have a radio, made by Pogo—I use to record radio programs when I can't listen to them; it's a PRP (personal radio player) and it does MP3 as well. My DSC camera will even record and play audio, and of course my laptop does it too. And Kathleen still has a MiniDisc player.

Some of my MP3 players.

For video again my laptop will play it for me, everything from AVI to HD via DivX, or WM9, or QT, and if I had 1394 I could play DV files as well. I do have a CD/DVD player in my laptop and so I can play regular DVD movies, VCD, and other formats.

A friend is sending a new Sony handheld HMP-A1 media player for me to play with, and then if I get bored with that I can use my iPaq, which will play movies, and Kathleen's Palm Tungsten C with its Kinoma player will also play movies and music.

My next phone, which is going to be an LG8000, will also play videos for me as well as 3D games. You could expect me to have a 3D game player, but movies? And soon I will have a phone that will play TV—that's still media, isn't it?

So think about the sizes.

My phone is a micro-media player. My iPAQ is a maxi-micro media player. The Sony (HMP) is a medium-media player, and my laptop is a full-size media player. What did I leave out? Oh yeah, my Exilim DSC is somewhere between a micro- and a maxi-micro player, while the Hitachi DVD videocam we have is a mini-midi player that makes and plays mini DVDs.

I never have to be alone again while on the road. I can play movies, music, games, look at photos, and entertain myself for untold hours.

But what about saturation? Yeah, it's fun to have all these media player toys, and, yeah, maybe even though I'm not a media freak I am in a privileged position to have access to so many of them. But as I've mentioned, I have friends who have as many or more. We are the early adopters and maybe even in a higher economic level than the majority of users. But survey your kids, and their friends. Almost all economic strata are awash in media players, and many people in fact do have several.

A movie playing on a Palm.

One of my favorite statistics that I like to use when I'm talking about mobile phones is that there are more mobile phone subscribers in the U.K. than there are people. That means that many people in the U.K. have multiple phones and therefore multiple subscriptions. Without having the data in front of me, I suspect we'll find the same thing in Japan and Korea (I think there is a law in Korea requiring people to get a mobile phone service for their newborns before they are allowed to take them home from the hospital.)

How far and fast can the mobile media player market go if everyone has multiple units, one for every imaginable event and situation, and even color coordinated ones for various costumes?

We've already seen the ASP of MP3 decoders plummet, and quite nice software codecs developed so that the value to a manufacturer of MP3 stuff is almost zero—it's like a VGA core. And now we're pushing out portable video media players with the same enthusiasm and aggressiveness.

Last September IDC forecast that more than 95 million portable compressed audio players will be shipped worldwide in 2006, up 70% from 2004, and the market will be worth $58 billion by 2008. But where is that growth going to come from? It can only come from fashion-driven consumers making replacement buys. An example of this is Apple's claim that iPod accounted for a whopping 92% of sales among hard-drive players in August 2004. They aren't making that claim anymore, they've had their moment.

So I think we've left the early adopter novelty stage of media players, jumped the chasm into late adopters and market saturation where everyone who wanted one has (at least) one, and now we're in the replacement and/or additional market phase where media players are being bought for their accessory/fashion/style qualities. Media players are generic.