Recently, the Financial Times ran an article questioning Apple’s performance in emerging markets (basically Asia ex-Japan, Africa and the Middle East). While the bulk of Apple’s revenue comes from the US/North America, Europe, and Japan, they are mature markets where most of the growth has already taken place; growth in revenues (and Apple is valued as a growth stock not a mature business) depends on ramping up sales and profit in places like China, Africa, and the Middle East. Sales in China and India of the Iphone are lackluster, reports the FT. Same with the Ipad, just too pricey for consumers in either country. Let alone Africa and much of the Middle East (which excepting a few lucky Gulf citizens/subjects remains poor). Meanwhile at home in places like North America, and Europe, stagnating economies mean consumers will look for bargains. Has Apple reached its inflection point?
My guess would be yes, it has, based on my admittedly non-scientific excursion outside the Apple realm for an MP3 player. I think Apple will retain in North America and Europe a hefty portion of Iphone, Ipad, and Ipod users, but growth is likely to be yesterday’s story.
Life inside the Apple ecosystem is very good, most of the time. Apple does a very good job, of system integration. It is not perfect, however. Older Ipods are generally not supported, and older Mac OS X operating systems also work poorly with both old and new Ipods. But most of the time, on a Mac or on Windows, Itunes plus an Ipod work very well. Similar stories are told (I don’t personally have either) with respect to Iphones and Ipads.
An Ipod or other MP3 player is a very useful thing. It has provided me comfort and support in many a hospital emergency room, or waiting area, or doctor’s office, let alone plane rides, airport lounges, and the like. You can put podcasts, audio books (many free from Librivox), and of course MP3s and AAC music. You can buy music from Amazon, Itunes, or other sources and easily put it on an Ipod (or other MP3 player). You can rip vinyl records fairly easily with a computer and USB microphone, plus free audio program Audacity. Save the files to a CD or simply convert them on the spot to MP3s, or both. Cheap and easy audio entertainment on the go is a good thing.
Putting music on an Ipod through Itunes, and organizing it, is very simple. While there are some gotchas, including non-support for older Ipods, most of the time Apple has done a superb job of hardware and software integration, their traditional strength. It just works.
But there is a price. The price is well, money.
For around $49 retail, you can pick up (at almost any Best Buy or online) an Ipod Shuffle. Nice, cute, neat, the Shuffle as of this writing has 2 GB pro-forma storage, the ability to create (with Itunes) playlists, and voice-over capability to choose songs or playlists. There is of course, no screen. For about $55 or so on Amazon, you can pick up the Sansa Clip Zip, with 8 GB of storage, with the option of a maximum of another 32GB by inserting a microSD card. You get an FM radio, recording (both voice and FM radio), and of course a screen. Playlists are supported, and so too are file formats MP3, AAC (non-DRM), FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, WMA, and WAV. The Ipod only supports MP3 and Itunes-generated AAC files (the Shuffle and some other Ipods will not play non-Itunes created AAC files).
If you have a Windows PC, and Windows Media Manager, life is good with the Sansa Clip Zip. Moving songs off and on, works very well (including Audible.com’s Audio Books). So does creating playlists. If you have a Mac, or a Linux machine, things don’t work quite as nicely.
For a Linux machine, Ipod support is an adventure. The Itunes replacement Rhythmbox, Amarok, and Banshee music-manager programs all have intermittent support for various Ipod models, and the program GTKPod is only slightly better. Getting older versions of Itunes to work under “WINE” (the Windows Emulator) can be done, but is tricky and requires searching around the Internet to find the right version of Itunes. Reformatting an Ipod, or updating the firmware, requires a recent version of Itunes and a Windows or Mac machine. If you have a Linux machine, you better be dual-booting to support your Ipod. Playlist creation on an Ipod with any of the Itunes replacements or GTKPod works intermittently at best.
Things are a bit better with the Sansa Clip Zip. The player works as an extended USB drive, essentially. Like the Barnes and Noble Nook and Amazon Kindle, you drop files into the appropriate folder off the root of the device. For the Nook and Kindle there are folders with names like “Books” where you would put the appropriate Epub or MOBI file when loading through the USB cable, the Sansa Clip Zip has a folder called Music. Where yes, you put your MP3 or other music files. Assuming the ID3 tags are properly filled out with the artist, album, genre, and other data, your player can display songs by album, artist, genre, etc. Just like an Ipod. Again if you have a Windows machine, creating playlists is a breeze.
Not so on a Mac or Linux machine. There, you need to have a program like Easy Tag to create playlists. Then, use a program like Emacs to edit the resulting xxx.m3u playlist files and move the songs around in copy-paste editing to get the order you want. For the Mac, this requires having your Development Tools installed and something like MacPorts or Fink installed as well (to get EasyTag). You’ll also need the latest Quartz version of X11, found here since the X11 environment provided by Apple crashes when launching Easy Tag.
To its credit, Sansa has many forums, with threads such as this one dedicated to Linux and Mac OS X support. Following the instructions to enable Rhythmbox or Banshee support, insert a file at the root directory named ” .is_audio_player” with the contents “audio_folders=MUSIC/,RECORD/” and things should work well. Though as the thread points out, later versions of Rhythmbox have menus that can be checked to force it to recognize the player.
Easy Tag works well for me on both a Mac and Linux machines. I have not tested Rhythmbox in moving content or creating playlists, with the Sansa Clip Zip.
When copying files from a Mac onto the Sansa Clip Zip, be aware that you need to erase the crummy ._ files that Mac OS X creates on FAT/Windows volumes. You can use the terminal to manually erase them, or with Mac OS X 10.5 and higher, use the terminal to do it with the command “dot_clean” like so:
$dot_clean /Volumes/SANSA\ CLIP/MUSIC/
There’s also a shareware/freeware program that requires an Intel Mac that does the same thing. If you don’t erase the ._ files however the player won’t find the MP3 or AAC files.
So in short, you can save money, but if you move outside the Windows environment, you have to jump through hoops to make things work right. Nothing show-stopping however and there is online support.
Updating the Firmware can be done easily, without Windows. Just drag the new firmware file onto the root directory after you download it from the Sansa website.
It is best if you organize your files a bit under the MUSIC directory, like make a folder for say an artist, or classical music, or what have you. I did find a few AAC files encoded from Itunes off a CD (ripped through Itunes in other words) choked the Sansa Clip Zip player, they needed to be removed before the player would operate. Until then it hung “refreshing the media” which was a pain.
Apple just makes things easier. But for a price. Certainly people will continue to make them profitable. If you have an Ipod, or an Ipad, or an Iphone, chances are when you replace it, you’ll get another one. But consumer budgets are tight. Prices for food, gas, clothing, and energy/utilities are going up. So are taxes, nation-wide. Wages and income are stagnant if not declining. IF discretionary income gets pointed towards a new Ipod type player, or a new Smart Phone, or a new tablet, not a replacement for an existing model, my guess is that other players will slowly but surely eat into Apple’s marginal sales the way eating at home has hurt the casual dining market.
People still go to fast food joints. Just not as much. They still dine out at very pricey restaurants, but not as much (USA Today reports that the rich are scaling back, both Tiffany’s and Blue Nile report crummy earnings for the past quarter). But the mid-market guys, the Olive Gardens and the Outback Steakhouses and the Rubys are hit very hard. There, people are not showing up the way they did before the recession. Recovery in meals eaten there has been slim to none. While home-cooked meals have increased.
It is more time consuming, and difficult, to prepare a meal at home than dining out. But it’s a lot cheaper, and you can have things exactly the way you want them. That is likely to drive a lot of users marginal decisions. No one is going to throw away a working Ipod. But particularly the Nano and upwards models, durability is not good, general sense among users is that an Ipod with a screen is good for about a year of use, that’s it. Afterwards you must replace it. In that case I think the other manufacturers, by playing the cheaper/more features game with Apple, can pick up wins. That’s likely to be true with the Amazon new tablets, and Android-based smart phones which the FT notes command most of the market share in Asia.
For Apple to continue its growth, and not be just another mature company, like say IBM, or Canon, or Toshiba, or … Sony? Well it needs to be “insanely great” as Steve Jobs was fond of saying. Creating something brand new, out of the obvious, in a way that is ridiculously easy to use, that meets a need for consumers they did not know about until they saw it, and immediately wanted it. Maybe the rumored Apple TV will be that new device. Given the push-back from various content providers, I doubt it. Moreover, Tim Cook whatever his merits has not shown the vision of creating new products that Steve Jobs did. Cook is more like Bill Gates, who screamed at and reportedly fired engineers who showed him tablet computers, music players, and smart phone prototypes in the mid to late 1990′s. In other words a guy skilled at squeezing out money from skilled IT labor, but not so much in creating a synthesis of existing hardware and software that integrates into something new, and better.
There are a lot of things I don’t like about Apple. The smugness. The elitism. The uber-liberalism, coupled with mind-boggling hypocrisy. Yet, they still made beautiful computers and MP3 players. Apple at its best made computing in all forms more beautiful. And I would hate to see that lost, for a lack of vision. America would be a poorer place if Apple has reached its inflection point, and becomes just another Canon or Toshiba. Let alone … Sony.