Is Today's iPod Like Yesterday's Palm Pilot?

Ed Yourdon

I’m still mulling over the significance of yesterday’s announcement of new iPods, though I notice much of the discussion has shifted to debates about the timing and significance of Apple’s $200 price reduction on the iPhone. Meanwhile, though, most of the reactions to the new iPods have been fairly positive, and at least one blogger has disagreed with my grumpy blog yesterday, in which I suggested that most of us don’t need the capacity to store 40,000 songs on our little machines.

Well, I’m still grumpy … or cynical … or generally unimpressed. Here’s another perspective to think about: roughly 10 years ago (see Wikipedia’s historical summary here), the venerable Palm Pilot was a transformational device; it enabled millions of business people, students, and others to trash their FiloFax, their Rolodex, and their bulky calendars and address books. Over the years, the Palm devices got better and better — with more storage, color displays, keyboards, WiFi capabilities, and the ability to attach all kinds of add-on accessories. I think it’s safe to say that, for many millions of people, the Palm Pilot was the first, and only, device they would stick in their pocket (or purse, or backpack, or briefcase) when they walked out the door. Having one’s Palm Pilot made one feel in control; not having it made one feel naked.

But during the past few years, that has all changed; PDA sales have plummeted, and I think the only reason Palm has stayed alive is that they bundled their PDA technology into a successful phone called the Treo. Starting about five years ago, the single most likely device that anyone would stick in their pocket as they walked out the door was either a cell phone, or an iPod … or both. There was no room for a Palm Pilot, and more significantly there was no need for the device; the hundred most significant phone/fax/email/snail-mail addresses can be programmed into your phone (or iPod), and the same is true for one’s calendar. Even more significant, in my opinion, is that many teenagers and young adults don’t even bother wearing a wristwatch any more: after all, their cell phone has a large digital clock.

What’s this got to do with yesterday’s iPod anouncement? Only this: more and more cell phones have adequate MP3 players, whereas almost all iPods do not have cellphone capabilities. Yes, the iPod is great for those who really do want 40,000 of their favorite songs with them at all times; but if that’s true, why is the iPod shuffle such a great success? Most people only need a few hundred songs on any given day; and as long as they can change the mix occasionally, when they’re connected to their desktop/laptop computer, the limited music-storage capacity of today’s cell phones is more than adequate.

Yes, the industrial design, and overall attractiveness, of the iPod is stunning; I’d be the last one to suggest that it’s going to die overnight. But the same could be said about the Palm Pilot: my Palm Tungsten C PDA is a glorious device, light-years of the initial Palm Pilot 1000; but Palm’s glory days are over. I suspect the same is true of the iPod; and just as Palm’s fortunes have depended on the cellphone-based Palm Treo for the past couple of years, I think Apple’s consumer-gadget future will depend more and more heavily on the success of the iPhone in coming years.

Interestingly, this may not require Apple to make a “binary,” all-or-nothing choice. By making its existing iPods more and more sophisticated (e.g., the iPod Touch), it can eventually say to the marketplace, “Oh, by the way, your favorite iPod now has a phone embedded in it too.” And by reducing the cost of its iPhone, adding more and more storage capacity, and licensing the device to several more telecom providers, it can eventually say to the marketplace, “Oh, by the way, the world’s best cellphone is now available at a price anyone can afford, and is available from your favorite (i.e., least-hated) telecom network. And oh, by the way, it can also store 40,000 songs!”

Ed Yourdon, software consultant
Copyright 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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