Edit : The Rise And Death Of Portable Media Players

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Edit : The Rise And Death Of Portable Media Players

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We grew up listening to the classic Beatle ( or Kishore Kumar for most) songs that our parents used to listen to. As we matured, we formed our own taste and style in music, and the technology surrounding us evolved. And as consumers, we adapted to it. We embraced the technology, incorporating it into our lifestyle and thereby becoming routine. Music plays a vital role in our society.

Hence, it was only natural for most of us to own a portable mp3 player that we would listen to every day, everywhere. But dwindling sales have led many to believe that the days of portable media players are numbered. We take a look.

Why MP3?

Before there were any MP3 players, there were MP3s: invented in 1987 by a group of German scientists looking for a way to shrink video files so that they would be easier to use on computers. To achieve this they stripped out as much “extraneous” data as possible, supposedly the stuff we wouldn’t miss. This loss of quality is at its least discernable when listening on headphones with the volume cranked up, so by 1998 the first portable digital music player had arrived: the MPMan F10, created by South Korean company SaeHan. (It wasn’t a hit; SaeHan now mostly manufactures textiles.) 

portable media player

The world’s first portable media player.

Mp3 also known as MPEG Audio Layer 3 is used to compress audio files so they take up lesser hard disk space. It can be stored and played on many digital devices such as computers, mobile phones and portable mp3 players. Consumers use mp3 files to listen to and store music.

For example, “A four-minute song on a CD would create a file of 42 MB (megabytes), while the same song encoded to MP3 would be reduced to just 3.84 MB. This reduction means that the file requires one-tenth of the hard disc space, allowing 10 times as much music to be stored in the same space.”

Quick Adoption

These new Portable Media Players would hold 1000 songs, could be recharged within an hour and would cost around 3-4k at that time. They were compact, came in a bunch of colours and were the “in thing” during that era.

[pullquote_left]”The internet and  easy-to-share programs like Napster and Limewire played the role of catalysts for Portable Media Players by providing easy and free access to music files.”[/pullquote_left]

By 2004, the digital music market was still wide open, with MP3 players comprising a small portion of all portable audio sales, and the biggest players wanted in. Apple had launched the iTunes Music Store in October of 2003, but wouldn’t sell a billion songs for nearly two years. Companies like Archos, Creative, and iRiver had been building players all along, but the early aughts weren’t for purely digital music yet. With the arrival of faster internet speeds and easy-to-share programs like Napster and Limewire, acquiring music was easier than ever. 

This led to people opening up to the idea of carrying a portable, compact device to fulfill their music needs.

Apple – The Biggest Player

Apple was without doubt the biggest player in this segment. The iPod was a very clever piece of hardware that utilized new 1.8?”hard drives that Toshiba had developed for a market that didn’t exist yet. Encased in a pearl white and metal casing, the iPod utilized a moving scroll wheel (later, a touch-based one) that served a novel scrolling interface on a relatively large 2″ monochromatic display.

portable media players

The first Apple iPod

The iPod would set the standard for Portable Media Players for years to follow, ignoring the plethora of buttons that plagued devices at the time, going so far as to omit a power button. But while the iPod hardware had many of the markings of a success story, its ecosystem (or rather, lack thereof) and price held it back from significant sales numbers for the first three years of its life.

During that time, numerous other companies realised the hidden potential in this segment of technology. MP3 players were substantially less expensive compared to CD players. 

portable media players

The Sony Walkmans were a hit among teenagers.

Companies like Sony, Philips, Cowon began churning out various different models of Portable Media Players. The Sony Walkman series gained popularity among teenagers.

portable media players

Microsoft unveiled various versions of the Zune to compete with Apple.


Microsoft’s Zune was probably Apple’s closest competitor. The hardware was slightly bigger than iPod’s similar hard drive model at the time, but came equipped with a large 3″ color screen, an FM tuner, a segmented circular directional pad that favored the Media Center-derived Twist interface for navigating menus, and a pair of buttons on its face mirrored by a shallow concavity on the backside. The player’s software was also a direct descendant of the Portable Mobile Center OS.

The casing came in five iridescent color schemes. Connectivity was provided by a proprietary 30-pin connector similar to ones used by the iPod. But their success didn’t last long. 

Non-Apple Portable Media Players were put to shame. Bruised. Battered. Beaten to death. All gadgets that attempted to outrank the iPod were ambushed and annihilated. Unless you held a personal grudge against Mr. Steve Jobs, or have had some downers with Apple in the past, you wouldn’t switch to a media player not belonging to the Apple clan.

The Demise

In 2007, Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone to the world. People were awestruck. But right there, a small iPod logo on the device’s screen spelled the beginning of the end for portable media players. 

portable media players

The iPhone killed its own parent product.

The iPhone promised a music experience which matched that of the iPod. Except you could make calls, play games, surf the internet, all at the same time while listening to your favourite tracks. Why have two gadgets when you can have one?

We all love our shiny smartphones, but the latest stats on MP3 players prove that the sleek handset in your pocket is a cold-eyed killer.

Yep, according to Mintel’s research sales of the humble portable media players – and let’s face it that means mainly Apple iPods – have dropped by a massive 22 per cent year on year.

‘Microsoft will no longer be producing Zune players,’ the company recently said in a statement timed very close to Apple’s latest iPhone announcements – a good time for tech companies to bury bad news.

Earlier, mobile phones did not offer music playback and so consumers were forced to carry a separate MP3 player, but when the smartphone market took off in 2007, offering devices with huge storage and comprehensive media players, the MP3 player’s days were numbered.

portable media players

Sales have been dwindling.

Despite Sony and Samsung each offering alternatives to the iPod with their Walkman and Galaxy ranges respectively, iPods dominates the MP3 player market; but their sales are falling continuously as smartphones continue to thrive, and while the iPod classic is still available, it features in none of Apple’s advertising and hasn’t received an update for more than three years.

I personally like using my 3rd generation iPod Nano and would’t trade it for anything, but smartphone provide me with the convenience of not having to carry two separate devices in the notorious Delhi public transport.

So while you may still use your portable media players while at the gym (though I’ve seen people use tablets to listen to music in the gym! Ridiculous!) or while out for a jog, the fact is that the end of MP3 players is near.

It’s been a nice, long journey nonetheless. 

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Shivaank Rana
iGyaan's Carlos Santana! Shivaank loves Apple products! He stays up to date with the latest happenings of the tech world and gets his hands dirty with the latest Gadgets! Follow Him on Google Plus : Google+