Apple resists mobile MP3 ambush
iPod v phones in UI war
Last week's 3GSM Congress was awash with phones with a new set of controls: "play", "pause", "FF" and "rewind" - the music phones. Is a oneGB SD chip really a threat to the market leader, the iPod? Apparently, Apple isn't taking the chance; it's going to counterattack in the next two weeks, with a colour iPod mini.
The reports so far seem all to be derived from the scoop by ThinkSecret, which was convincingly full of tech details - "full-color active-matrix TFT screen" and "about the same size as the current iPod mini display and will sport a 176x132 resolution" and "Sources hinted at a 6GB drive".
But while the question of whether to go for a music phone, or stay with the iPod - and choose between a "Shuffle" with built in flash RAM (announced back in January) or a hard-disk based colour "mini" iPod with five or six gigabytes - isn't what the providers are worrying about behind the scenes.
Rather, it's the user interface.
The problem facing the phone designers is: Where is the best place to put the music control panel, and what should it look like?
"Ours is simple. Switch on, and it plays," said Sendo CEO Hugh Brogan at Cannes last week." So it does, but getting it started is just half the battle; you also have to make sure it doesn't accidentally stop when you're jogging, and that it is easy and automatic to switch to a different song if the one you're playing doesn't match your mood.
In that respect, the winning combination, rivals agree, will be the one that is at least as good as the iPod's spinning dial.
At last week's show, apart from the two phones we already highlighted - the Sendo and the Microsoft designs - there were another dozen similar items mostly from small Chinese tech startups. They all looked superficially similar.
And there's a simple reason for that: T-Mobile is getting into the iPod market with at least one phone, worldwide, later this year; and it has specified what it wants. That gave everybody a design target to shoot at. Unfortunately, it seems to have prevented them from doing any innovation which would have ruled them out of the T-Mobile contract.
Interestingly, the Mac geeks are convinced that 5GB of disk isn't enough, and are all talking animatedly about how wonderful Apple's anti-shock technology is, which prevents the disk head from skipping tracks while you're listening on the move. Meanwhile, with the ability to store a dozen or more CDs on a 1GB Flash card and no anxiety about shock and a much smaller form factor, the non-disk players are quietly sneaking into the market.
If the Apple products outsell these - and they will - it won't be because of the huge capacity. It will be the user interface. Nobody has shown anything like a competent alternative yet.