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The Future of Digital Music Players

By Elizabeth Millard
Feb 14, 2004 1:30 AM PT

Although technology moves at a fast clip, the leaps and bounds in the evolution of digital music players to date have been especially speedy.

The Future of Digital Music Players

Only a few years ago, a digital music aficionado's choices consisted mainly of 128-MB flash players that held only a handful of songs. Now, 40-GB devices double as portable hard drives and hold up to 10,000 songs. Not surprisingly, this move toward more technological power has been embraced by consumers, and adoption of digital music devices is growing steadily.

With the music-player revolution moving ahead at full speed, what's next for this technology?

Live Battery

One aspect of digital music players that likely will keep changing is their technological components. Hyder Rabbani, president and COO of music-player manufacturer Archos, told the E-Commerce Times that the near future will bring better versions of everything that is on the market today.

"In the same way that hard drive technology keeps advancing, digital player technology will continue to be more refined," Rabbani said. "Don't expect any dramatic changes, but rather, steady changes for the better that are done at a fairly fast pace."

In particular, the trend toward miniaturization should make for an interesting next couple of years. Apple has just unveiled the iPod mini, which holds 1,000 songs and is about the size of a business card. Rabbani noted that competitors are likely to move in the "smaller is better" direction as well.

One benefit of making smaller devices is that battery life can be extended, according to Rabbani.

"If you go from a 1.8-inch drive to a 1-inch drive," he said, "you could save 60 to 70 percent of your power consumption based on form factor alone."

Music Plus

In addition to their shrinking form factors and increasing capacity, digital music players have evolved to include more features, memory and music-format options. Jonathan Sasse, president of iRiver, told the E-Commerce Times that consumers, not developers, will continue to drive this type of innovation.

In this vein, one trend that could develop is further consolidation, making music players capable of doing more than delivering tunes.

"We see portable entertainment being a category that will emerge throughout 2004 and increase to include multiple music formats [and] multiple video formats, along with integrating photos," Sasse noted.

The reason why tomorrow's devices will have such power is that players have more and more storage capacity. With such a luxurious amount of space, consumers likely will seek to fill it with more than Britney and Outkast.

Content Is King

Another potential addition to digital players is an increase in the kind of content such players have excelled with already: music.

"What you're going to see soon are players that come with preloaded content," Rick Grienzewic, Gateway's director of digital audio, told the E-Commerce Times. Music and other audio files, such as audiobooks, can be preloaded onto a device via a subscription service. He added, "New digital rights management will allow you to do that, and I think it's going to be big."

Grienzewic said he thinks offering preloaded content with few restrictions, as with the iTunes model, would be cost prohibitive. However, Rabbani noted that it could be done as long as usage provisions were put in place. For example, content loaded onto a player could be prohibited from being downloaded to another device, preventing the music from hitting illegal file-swapping sites.

Already, the kinks are being worked out for this evolution, Rabbani said. Archos is looking into developing a way to include preloaded content that can be selected by a consumer from a Web site.

"There are many ways to use this kind of content and develop it," he said. "We're seeing it as the advent of a new business model for the industry."

Pick and Choose

Although music players seem to have a bright future, with more storage capacity -- and probably higher price tags -- Sasse noted that the range of devices now available indicates companies still are working to serve consumers who seek lower-end, cheaper alternatives.

The next few years should see a profusion of music players at all cost levels and capacities, he said.

"Digital music players have evolved to fit different lifestyles," Sasse added. "128-MB music players are still very popular and serve a specific market need."

Indeed, Rio vice president Kevin Brangan noted that the current marketplace is about 80 percent flash players and 20 percent hard drive players -- and he does not expect that ratio to change in the near future. Within both the flash and hard drive realms, there will be many more options in coming years as more developers enter the industry.

"Having so much choice is ideal for the consumer," Brangan told the E-Commerce Times. "There will be more players being launched, and that will lead to even more choices. It's going to become pretty exciting from here."

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