Thursday, November 24, 2005

The universal MP3 player dock

It's not like The Register to succumb to hype in the face of reason, but it does occasionally happen. It appears that Microsoft is pushing for an open standard to MP3 player connectors, a rival to the dock on the iPod.

The article does mention that the iPod dock was born out of necessitty rather than engineering brilliance, but only after mentioning that most other manufacturers "simply stuck in a USB port and and left it at that". The author then goes on to claim that it was the proprietary connector, made available to third-party vendors, that enabled the appearance of so many iPod accessories.

Now, I'm sorry, but this is a clear case of substituting cause for effect. The iPod dock did obviously come about because Apple wanted to provide both USB 2.0 and FireWire connectivity, and needed a charger plug as well - but didn't want to spoil the lines of their beautiful plastic box with too many holes. This is not in any way exceptional; if you look at mobile phones, each and every single one of them has an iPod-style flat port, where you attach the charger, or the sync cable, or (on most models) the handsfree. These ports are both proprietary and defiantly non-standard; the specifications and even physical dimensions change not only between manufacturers, but between model lines and generations.

The iPod solution itself is far from elegant. They made a huge effort to support FireWire, but that format has since become irrelevant - USB 2.0 is all the speed you'll realistically need, and this is coming from a person who regularly dumps episodes of Top Gear onto his Archos media player - and even obsolete: most new laptops and motherboards aren't actually wired for IEEE 1394 any more. In an ironic development mentioned in the Register article, Apple itself has dumped FireWire support from new generations of the iPod. As for power, my Motorola V500's charger takes up three pins out of about 20. And I can charge the phone off a USB port, just by sticking in the cable connector.

But the biggest crime against common sense committed by the abovementioned author is the assertion that the numerous iPod accesories came about because of the connector. As a matter of fact they appeared in spite of it. Let's be fair - the iPod may not objectively be the best product on the market, but it is infinitely desirable. The most popular accessory by far is the FM transmitter, and that is a two-bit chip replicated by every OEM factory in Taiwan. It doesn't even use the connector, but rather the bog standard headphone line out! The other accessories are generally either speakers of varying complexity (and daftness), or devices to attach the iPod to another system as an audio source. The iPod has so much shiny stuff available for it because a lot of people have it. Sure, Apple made it happen by letting the Taiwanese take a peak at the connector specs (an uncharacteristic move), but it would still be a hell of a lot easier if it was straight USB.

And that's what Microsoft's new unified MP3 player standard will be - same as the old unified MP3 player standard. The speed of USB 2.0 is sufficient even for HDD-based units with gig upon gig of storage, plus it can charge things well enough - the Motorola V3 RAZR is just one device that gets charges exclusively through a mini-USB port - plus it is a ready format for controlling pretty much anything. You have to remember that the audio player pretty much always connects as a peripheral, and if the Archos PMA400 has USB host functionality for hooking up a keyboard, it sure as hell won't be a problem for the OEMs to stick the right circuit in the next shiny white Belkin box.

No, what Microsoft is really after is not a unified hardware standard - Apple's a hardware company, but MS is a software one, as the Reg article rightly mentions - but a unified software standard. A generic driver that will allow absolutely any device, even the hard-drive ones (and not just Archoses either) to mount on any system right out of the box, and enable full access. USB inputs on car stereos? It's happening as we speak.

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