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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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Hence the CEA initiative. The CEA's motives are almost certainly pure: it makes sense to develop a common platform for this kind of thing, as it allows player makers and peripheral designers - is the car peripheral to the iPod, or vice versa, we wonder? - to work to the same blueprint and thus ensure compatibility. Industry standards are usually more beneficial to more vendors, many of them CEA members.

Microsoft will say it shares that motive, and it does, but for slightly different reasons, we suspect. With a universal dock standard in place, other media player vendors' products will become more attractive to consumers and to manufacturers who want to get into the peripheral market but don't want to have to agree to Apple's licensing terms. Microsoft will tout the standard as the natural partner to Windows Media.

It will also appeal to all those Apple competitors whose me-too MP3 products have been eclipsed by the icon product of a company who they believed they had seriously beaten in the computing arena. Think Dell, the now iPod-free HP, etc. These folks will happily rally around the standard and drive it hard. They will rattle on about 'open standards', 'interoperability' and 'giving consumers greater access to content'.

That leaves Apple looking increasingly like a lock-in vendor, particularly given the iPod-iTunes axis. Even if it really opens up the dock connector specification on its own, it loses because all the other MP3 player makers get their hands on it and suddenly all those nice iPod-only accessories will work with kit from Creative, iRiver, Samsung et al. And it still faces whatever system Microsoft and co. comes up with.

If Apple follows the standards process and adopts whatever specification the CEA team comes up with, it still finds itself up against competitors whose players have as many accessories as the iPod does and, worse, risks alienating owners of older iPods for whom potential purchases will fade away as the classic iPod dock connector becomes increasingly irrelevant.

This is an issue for Apple because it's a hardware company. It's not an issue for Microsoft, because it sells software and as long as somebody makes hardware that uses its code, it wins. It has no vested interest in hardware beyond that need, whereas Apple's success is predicated upon designing and selling great hardware.

Apple's best option - 'least-worse' might be better - would be to co-opt the standards process by proposing its existing specification as the de facto standard. That way, at least, it's not going to have to spend years ignoring the growing support for the rival specification, only to have to cave in to market forces and support it anyway. This way, it could also continue to earn royalty revenues, as it does with FireWire, for instance, but again loses the advantage it has gained to date from the iPod's undeniably innovative dock concept. ®

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