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Microsoft moots 'universal' MP3 player dock

Or, how to beat Apple's iPod by leveraging 'open' standards

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Analysis The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has established a working group to develop a universal docking standard for portable devices, the US-centric organisation announced this week.

The move is being driven by Microsoft - at least, the software giant is the only company to be granted quotation space on the CEA press release, and there's a Microsoft staffer in the working group's chair. It's not hard to see why. Having failed to beat the iPod using proprietary technology - the Windows Media format - it's try to beat it using a sharper weapon: the open standard it defines.

Apple's iPod owes its success to many factors, not least of which is the company's decision to develop the player's dock connector. Where other music player makers have simply stuck in a USB port and and left it at that, the proprietary dock connector has provided the perfect foundation for a whole range of iPod accessories that have, in turn, helped the small white player on its way to mainstream market dominance.

Like so many great inventions, the dock was born out of necessity, almost certainly Apple's need to support both the USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity types in the same small unit without building two separate ports into the player. Ironically, the latest iPods no longer support FireWire for data transfers, and we can't help wondering if that had been the case three generations of iPod ago, the dock connector would never have made it to shipping product.

Perhaps recalling what happened in the Palm world, Apple has also been willing to allow other firms to license the dock connector mechanical and electrical specifications, and that too has made it much easier for third-party manufacturers to knock up iPod-specific devices, boosting the so-called 'iPod ecosystem' for which Apple likes to claim credit.

Car makers are starting to put the dock connector into their vehicles and it's already turned up in a broad array of docking cradles, speaker rigs, remote control systems, wireless connectivity tools and more.

Almost none of which, of course, are available for music players based on Windows Media. In particular, the automobile interfaces, which is probably why Microsoft is making so much of that side of the universal dock concept as it is. Think how big, how sexy the car industry is.

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