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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 08:11 GMT 09:11 UK
Far out future for mobile media
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Original 2001 iPod, AP
Few people thought the iPod would succeed

When Apple unveiled the iPod on 23 October 2001 not even Mac fans thought it would prove popular.

Early reaction posted by Apple users to the MacRumours forums greeted the gadget with contempt.

One contributor calling themselves WeezerX80 wrote: "All this hype for something so ridiculous!". Another predicted it would be "killed off in a short time" as it was "not really functional".

Five years on and it is fair to say that the iPod has proved the nay sayers wrong. In that time it has brought about big changes to the way we consume music. In the UK, 80% of the singles bought are downloads.

But it is interesting to ask what the next five years holds for the iPod and every other portable music player - are equally big changes on the horizon?

Smart stuff

By 2011 portable media players will have changed immensely, says Ted Vucurevich, chief technology officer at chip design software firm Cadence.

First iPod - 5GB (2001)
iPod video - 80GB (2006)
iPod Nano - 8 GB (2006)
iPod Shuffle 2GB (2006)
Apple has sold 68m iPods since 2001 (Source: Piper Jaffray)
"Five years in the classic sense of semi-conductors is about 2.5 processor generations," says Mr Vucurevich. "It's the ability to put in the same size case, components with 4-6 times as much functionality as we have today."

In raw specification terms this will mean hundreds of gigabytes of storage, bigger, brighter screens and a much longer battery life.

This "natural evolution" of technology as Mr Vucurevich describes it could see the inclusion of scrollable screens that can be pulled out flat so video stored on a portable player is shown on a decent-sized display.

It could also mean that portable players incorporate sensors that can keep an eye on key health indicators and pass that on to a doctor at a regular check-up. The iPod has proven the value of carrying information locally, said Mr Vucurevich.

"Players will be smaller on the outside but bigger on the inside," said Nate Elliott, senior analyst at JupiterResearch but added that the changes will not stop there. By 2011 media players will include an array of wireless communication technologies so we can share what we have stored on them.

Which technology this will be is not yet clear, said Mr Elliott, because the choices available to gadget makers at the moment are far from ideal.

Joggers, Eyewire
Your iPod may soon keep an eye on your health
Bluetooth is too slow for large media files, said Mr Elliott, and wi-fi systems are too thinly spread to make them a viable alternative.

Also, he added, wireless technologies were a significant drain on battery life.

Although Microsoft's Zune player had wireless swapping system built-in, Mr Elliott predicted this would be hard to make a success in the short term.

Research also suggested that the most prevalent type of content carried around on portable players for the next few years was music, said Mr Elliott.

"Consumers are twice as interested in audio than video," he said, "and twice as interested in video than they are in games."

Change management

But perhaps the biggest change approaching for Apple and the iconic iPod over the next few years has nothing to do with hardware.

Rick Levine, a senior manager at hi-tech consulting firm Accenture, said that what Apple got right in the early years of the iPod may prove a burden in the future.

"In the beginning of any technology is an adoption curve where you have the pioneer phase in which you need to do some exceptional things to win acceptance and you get exceptional returns," he said.

Mr Levine suggested that Apple was currently riding this phase of the media player market. While MP3 players were launched before and after the 2001 release of the iPod, so far, none dominate like it does.

CD being placed in computer, Eyewire
Most people rip their own CDs for their portable players
Apple protected this advantage with its Fairplay digital rights management (DRM) system that locks people into its ecosystem, he said.

But, he warned, history shows that growing popularity turns niche products into commodities. In the case of portable media players this will mean that prices drop and media will be increasingly easy to access.

The social changes that portable players bring about will also drive this move to easier access to multimedia content.

The gadgets and the content will become available to more people than ever before.

Ultimately, said Mr Levine, this will also mean the end of DRM because once access to music and movies is ubiquitous it becomes a disadvantage to lock people into one way of getting at this content.

Mr Levine's prediction is that soon, perhaps within the next five years, Apple would licence the interfaces for iTunes and the iPod to ensure it reaches as many people as possible in this rapidly growing pool of users.

However, he warned, there were no guarantees that Apple would heed the lessons of history and work with this drive towards commoditisation.

If Apple came to expect very high revenues from iPod sales and tried to work against these forces, the goodwill it had generated among users could evaporate.

Research suggests that only 5% of the music on portable players comes from online stores, suggesting that people like their gadgets more than the company that made them.

"The things that make you a pioneer dull your senses to noticing that the competition is climbing your heels," he said.

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