We’re now on the fifth generation of the standard iPod. (I consider the mini, nano, and shuffle to be separate entities.) The newest iPod also marks the third change (or is it fourth?) in form factor for the device. If you buy the latest iPod, it comes with an adaptor to snap onto it so that you can use it with some of the existing accessories that rely on the thickness of the device. This includes many of the speaker units that have a built-in iPod dock for you to slot your iPod into. However, as CNET is reporting, not all of the old accessories will work. The 3G and 4G iPods have a little connector near the headphone jack, but the 5G ones don’t. Anything that relies on that little connector is suddenly obsolete, including many of the FM transmitters that allow you to play your iPod through your car stereo. Likewise, many of the cases that are currently on the market are built for the screen size and clickwheel size of the 3G and 4G iPods. Aside from the one-size-fits-all iPod sock, I didn’t notice any cases in the Apple store that will fit the newest iPod.
How does this impact the consumer? Right now, consumers with 3G and 4G devices are okay, since the vast majority of iPod accessories work for their iPod. Someone who walks into a store to buy a 5G iPod is going to need careful guidance from the employees to ensure that they purchase accessories that work with their iPod. I wonder how many complaints that the employees are hearing because either (a) people are buying accessories that won’t work, (b) people want to upgrade to the newest iPod but will also have to incur the additional expense of replacing their existing accessories, or (c) people are unhappy that the vast majority of accessories in stores only work with the old iPods. In three months, when there are more accessories for the 5G iPod, what happens to someone who walks into an Apple store looking for a case for their old 4G iPod? At what point do the accessory makers give up on trying to keep up with the latest iPod form factor?
I’ve already had to have this conversation (multiple times) with my mother. She knows that I have an iPod. What she doesn’t know (or, more correctly, doesn’t remember) is that it’s a 2G iPod, which is now painfully out-of-date (in iPod terms, anyway). A couple of months before any given gift-giving occasion, she calls me and asks what I want. I always point her to my Amazon wishlist, but she doesn’t like it. Then she starts saying how she’s recently come across all of the cool new iPod accessories, and wouldn’t I want one of these or these or these? I try not to sigh audibly as I explain to her that I have an old iPod, and none of these cool things in the store will work with it. ‘But it’s an iPod! How can it be different?’ she always asks. And I never have a good answer for her.
I wonder how this change in form factor plays out for Apple. They’re the current king of the hill in audio players, but that seems like it could be a fickle market. How important are accessories to iPod buyers? (But then, what other media player has any kind of accessories at all, let alone the plethora of accessories that are available to the iPod buyer?) Will consumers get cranky and go buy something else (another media player, or maybe an MP3 CD player) because they find the iPod accessories too confusing?
Various media outlets have hypothesied about the iPod killer. If such a beast is going to exist, this kind of release is the perfect time to do it. An iPod killer needs to have a nice form factor, an excellent UI, and a reasonable selection of accessories available immediately. As the existing competition has shown, having a good UI and a lower price point isn’t compelling enough for many consumers to purchase one of the competitors.
I think that Apple is going to continue to be king of the hill in the media player market for the foreseeable future. But I do think that they need to ensure that they don’t alienate their customers, both existing and future. If they get too complacent and take their market share for granted, they could make it easy for a new king to be crowned.