iPod goes into decline – apparently

Today’s Technology section in The Guardian carries a piece about the decline in sales of single-purpose digital music players in general, and Apple’s iPod in particular. If the data are accurate, it looks like the market (at least in western markets) is pretty much saturated, and new sales are limited largely to replacements; the lifetime of these devices, apparently, is about two years.

Well, not really a surprise. Classic S-curve stuff. There are only so many people in the world who want to own an iPod. And, so it’s suggested, the trend these days is towards devices with their own connectivity so that they can download directly and don’t have to be plugged in to a computer. Something like the iPhone, perhaps … or even my beginning-to-expire Nokia N73 Music Edition, which I only bought because it was the only one in stock in the store, I don’t use for music, and find highly annoying when every so often it starts to play noises in my pocket.

But one of the reasons I bought this particular phone is because it will replicate calendar and address book with my Mac. I take pictures with it; and I store a small handful of useful documents, like the local bus timetable, or schedules and confirmations for the current trip. And very occasionally I even do Internet or email on it. So multi-function is definitely In; I just don’t happen to combine music with it. Apple have sold 30 million iPhones in two years, as Steve Jobs announced yesterday. Part of the success of the iPhone and the iPod Touch is attributed to the App Store, which has notched up 1.8 billion downloads from 75,000 apps. Multi-functionality joins the consumer economy!

But the Guardian’s report goes on to suppose that the decline of new purchases of iPods will take the music industry with it, and I need convincing of that. The report quotes Mark Mulligan of Forrester who believes that “logically” the slow-down in device sales leads to a slow-down in downloads. But that assumes that the only people who buy downloads are first-time new iPod users. I don’t recall that sales of old-fashioned singles were expected to slow down when every teenager in the world owned a record player: or CDs, for that matter.

And it doesn’t square with Mulligan’s published research. Admittedly I can only see the abstracts, but in his most recent report he talks about the “immensity of the new creative opportunities that will accompany the radical product innovation that the music industry so desperately needs“, and about the continuity of relationship between music-makers and their buyers.

On Forrester’s Consumer Product Strategy blog, he admits, like many commentators, to being “underwhelmed” by Apple’s announcements this week – though the faithful were clearly glad to see Steve Jobs back in circulation, and gave him a standing ovation. But he suggests that “Apple is playing a smart game that builds the social context of their devices …”, with links emerging between iTunes and the social mediaverse (Facebook, YouTube, Spotify and so on). Perhaps, in line with what Mulligan suggests, more like my N73 than my iPod?

• Apple Special Event, Sept 2009: watch the video. Or see the iPod and iPhone press releases at Apple Hot News
• Music Release Windows: The Product Innovation That The Music Business Can’t Do Without. Forrester Research, 9 Sept 2009
• Is Apple Playing a Subtle But Smart Platform Strategy? Forrester Consumer Products Strategy blog, 9 Sept 2009
• Twilight of the iPods The Guardian (Technology), 10 Sept 2009


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