Yet there is plenty of competition on all three fronts: hardware, music store and software. Creative Labs, iRiver, Samsung, Archos and Sony are just a few of the companies that make products that compete with the iPod. The iTunes music store faces competition from Yahoo, Rhapsody, Napster and even Wal-Mart while Microsoft's Windows Media Player is the most popular of many programs that — like Apple's iTunes software — let you play music and video and transfer media files to a portable device.
Apple's secret sauce includes well-designed hardware, a user friendly shopping experience and incredibly great marketing. It's the one company that offers the complete solution – it controls the hardware, the software and the service.
Microsoft, to date, has played a supporting role with hardware partners. The software giant offers the underlying software and the digital rights management technology (the code embedded in music files that limit how people can copy and use downloaded music) but it doesn't offer its own player. Rumor has it that's about to change. Though Microsoft hasn't announced any products, there is widespread speculation that the division of Microsoft responsible for the Xbox game console might come out with a Microsoft-branded portable digital music player.
One reason no one has come close to taking a bite out of Apple's market share is because most other players on the market are more or less me-too products. Don't get me wrong, there are some excellent music players out there but – as Apple knows from its PC business – to take sales away from the dominant player, you have to be more than just better – you have to be a lot better and you have to "think different."
The good news is that a new company, MusicGremlin (www.musicgremlin.com), just introduced a new music player and service that really is different with new ways to obtain and share music. Like the iPod, and nearly every other digital music player, you can use a USB cable to transfer songs from a PC to the Gremlin but the Gremlin also allows you to download music without a computer from its MusicGremlin Direct service. The $299 device has built-in WiFi wireless networking that makes it possible to purchase or obtain subscription music by connecting directly to the Internet through a WiFi network without using a PC.
The company has its own music store which is stocked with pretty much the same music as the ones run by Apple, Yahoo, Rhapsody, Napster and others. Unlike Apple — but like most other services — you have a choice between paying 99 cents to purchase a song or subscribing to an "all you can download" service for $14.99 a month. And, like the other subscription services, music you download can only be enjoyed as long as you're a paying subscriber. If you don't pay, the songs eventually won't play because the service has to check in every 30 days to make sure you're a current subscriber. But what's cool about the Gremlin is that you don't have to connect to a PC to listen to any of the two million songs in the library. Just today I was sitting at a Wi-Fi equipped café in Washington DC and, at the spur of the moment, downloaded and listened to the Black Eyed Peas "Don't Lie."
The process is pretty simple. Once you've registered your Gremlin and subscribed to the service, you use the device's navigation button to select "Get Connected to WiFi." It scans for networks and, with some limitations, lets you connect. It should work with most home and office networks and, if you subscribe to T-Mobile's WiFi service, you're in luck. But, it won't work with most other pay networks that require you to log on with a username and password. It does work with home and office networks that use standard WEP encryption. It doesn't support WPA encryption.
Once you're online, you select "Get New Music" which lets you browse by artist, albums and tracks. When you find a song you like, you can download it to the device and you can start to listen within a few seconds even before the entire song has been downloaded.
Regardless of whether you're a subscriber, you can always download and purchase a song for 99 cents but subscribers get access to the entire library for no additional charge as long as their subscription is in force.
The device also has an interesting way to share music. Any Gremlin subscriber can elect to share his or her music collection with any other subscriber. The company's PR person let me browse through her entire music collection and pick songs to transfer to my Gremlin. She also picked a few songs she thought I'd like and "beamed them" to me, even though she was more than a thousand miles away. Of course, she and I had to both be connected to our respective WiFi networks for this to work.
If you happen to be near another Gremlin user you can use its "ad-hoc" network finder you to exchange files. The company loaned me two Gremlins (and set me up with two temporary subscriptions) which allowed me to test out the service by transferring songs from one device to another. One gotcha on this is that even though you're in the same room, you still need a WiFi connection so the service can verify that you're both subscribers – another requirement of the oh-so vigilant music companies.
You can also listen to programmed music by subscribing to "Gremlists." These are playlists of songs from a variety of genres that are automatically sent to your device on a weekly basis.
Other than its unique WiFi connection, the Gremlin is your typical digital music player. It works pretty much like any other player though I did discover a few glitches including annoying delays when you turn it on, turn it off or select a song. The delays are at most a few seconds but just long enough to notice. I also had trouble connecting to some WiFi networks. The device has an FM radio but you can't preset your favorite stations. Its 8 gigabyte hard drive can store about 2,000 tracks and can play standard MP3 and WMA files in addition to songs that have been downloaded from the MusicGremlin service. It will also play music purchased from other Windows Media services which is just about everyone but Apple. The device weighs about four ounces and measures 2.4 inches by 4 inches by 3/4 inches.
By Larry Magid