Microsoft moots 'universal' MP3 player dock
Or, how to beat Apple's iPod by leveraging 'open' standards
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.
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. ®