Faster Talk: Apple in Their Eyes

Digital-audio players weren't exactly virgin territory when Apple entered the fray in 2001. But the iPod—with its sublime design, intuitive usability, and unparalleled cool quotient—set a new standard by which all other MP3 players would be judged. Expanding on the feature that ran in the magazine, six rivals talk about designing their answer to an icon.

Go the Distance With the Details

Dan Harden

Principal, Whipsaw Inc.
San Jose, California

If there's anything anyone in this field is chasing, it's Apple's quality and simplicity. Pick up an iPod, and you get it, you feel it, you sense it. But let's not forget that these things are made in China. It's nothing different from what everybody else is doing. The difference is that Apple will spend a lot of time and a lot of money to train quality-control standards. Unlike smaller companies, it can afford to get to the microlevels and really think through how a button feels. As a result, it has made digital audio seem so easy, so fast, so seamless.

When the iPod first came out in 2001, it had a pretty serious impact on Rio Audio, who had been one of the first to offer an MP3 player in the late 1990s. Rio came to us in 2002 and basically said, "We need serious help. Our market position has slipped, and we may even go bankrupt." We helped them beat Apple to market on a mini-hard-drive player by a year with the Nitrus. We were working on the Nitrus's successor, the Carbon, when Apple shot back in 2003 with the iPod mini. Suddenly the philosophical underpinning became, How could Rio possibly compete with this powerhouse Apple? What do we need to do to make a dent in this behemoth?

We decided that we had to be radically different from Apple. Where Apple was sort of the ivory tower, we were going to be the dark rebel. Where Apple was very geometric, we were going to be smooth and curvy. Apple was so enamored with absolute pure, minimalist design that some designers may argue that ergonomics were compromised. We also saw an opportunity to beat Apple in materials and battery life.

Overall, we had to be very careful not to let the temptation of adornment get ahead of us. Every single feature on the Carbon had to have a purpose. Some companies have reacted to the iPod by loading up with features, but that can backfire. It'll become kitschy and tasteless. The control and discipline in the details had to convey Rio's commitment to quality in the design. We went to Asia and worked very closely with the contract manufacturers, holding them accountable to the quality standards we set. It cost an additional 25% of the total design fee, but we were able to design out mistakes this way. That was crucial because Rio doesn't advertise. The Carbon had to be its own salesman.

In so many different ways, designing the Carbon was the ultimate. It was a slam-dunk for Rio. But it can make you sad as a designer because you know your baby is going to live for only a year or two. At the same time, technology changes so fast, you'll always get another chance to do something great. Above all, you have to stay honest about the user's needs and design a product that is appealing whether the user is tech savvy or not.

Dan Harden, 45, started his own firm after 10 years at frog design. The Carbon is the second-best-selling midsized player, behind only the iPod mini.

One Design Does Not Fit All

Ellen Glassman

General manager of brand design and strategy
Sony Electronics USA
Park Ridge, New Jersey

At Sony, we believe What customers really want is choice. How we deliver that is a collaborative process between designers, engineers, and marketers. What we've found is that consumers have very different needs that can't be fulfilled by a one-size-fits-all approach. So we believe in offering a breadth of designs, price points, and features: In March, we introduced nine flash-based players to the Network Walkman lineup, which includes last year's 20-gigabyte HD3.

Competing in this space? Honestly, it's all about customers first. We accomplish that by having our designers watch for emerging trends and technologies and then marry them to the needs of the customer. Our designers must have an extra sense of what will come. We send them all over the world to different kinds of exhibits, such as the Milan furniture fair. We have designer exchange programs, where someone from, say, Tokyo will work in the States for a while. Senior management realized very early on how important it is for designers to understand different cultures. It's a way for them to keep their minds open to possibilities.

We believe we're in a unique position as an entertainment company. As digital technologies converge, we're evolving to combine portable audio and entertainment. If someone wants to play games, listen to music, or watch a movie, we offer that in one device. If they want to make a call, take a photo, and listen to music, we do that too. So we're going to continue to pursue what we've always pursued: identifying consumer lifestyles and making products that work for them. In the end, we're really competing with ourselves to make the products better.

Ellen Glassman, 40, was formerly director of the Sony Design Center. Early reviews of Sony's newest set of flash-based players say it's a strong contender to take on the iPod shuffle.

Let the Customer Drive Design

Steve Gluskoter

Codirector, Industrial Design and Usability
Product Group, Dell
Round Rock, Texas

Sometimes, something that looks cool or neat is of no value to the customer. By the time we entered the market for MP3 players in 2003 with the Dell DJ, there had been a lot of products out there, and we studied the vast majority, including the iPod. There were positives and negatives for every player, and we tracked them. But we didn't want to focus on what everyone else did.

At Dell, we don't make design decisions based on style alone. Customer input is a huge driver, which is why we talk to our customers directly through our in-house usability lab. This is where we test our concepts alongside our competitors'. Then we watch and learn. That's how we realized the importance of volume control, which has a dedicated button on the Pocket DJ. It's something people want to adjust constantly but was often buried or difficult to find on other players.

We also do our own trend watching. Honesty of materials was one trend that factored into the design. People want to know that the cold feel of metal in your hand is the real thing, so we chose to go with anodized aluminum, which gave us the strength and rigidity we needed. Also, our surface is fingerprint resistant. In the labs, we saw that people were incredibly annoyed by that with the iPod.

There's a sign in the lab that says two things: listen to the customer and you're not the customer. We bring in people across a broad demographic, from target customers to owners of our competitors' players, from teenagers to corporate executives. It's hard to do the wrong thing if you're talking to enough people and listening to what the masses are telling you.

Steve Gluskoter, 41, joined Dell in 1993 as its first industrial designer. The Pocket DJ, released last October, was named one of Oprah's Favorite Things in 2004.

Put Design First

Young Se Kim

CEO and founder, Innodesign Inc.
Palo Alto, California

In the first 15 years of my career as a designer, many clients would come in with an idea already set and then ask me to make it pretty. The trouble is, their ideas were based on research from competitors' products or trends. It's very difficult to make a completely different product that way. You'll end up with more of the same.

That's what happened with iRiver's first hard-drive player. It was based on an engineering spec, and we didn't have as much freedom with the design. So with the H10, its successor, I felt we had to start from scratch. We obviously couldn't ignore our biggest competitor, the Apple iPod, whose design is so popular. But we wanted to do something different. With the iPod's click wheel, I noticed lots of people using only one-quarter of the turn with the thumb. So I thought, if that's all they need, why not make it just go straight up and down? That idea—that a vertical touch pad might make more sense—came from just watching people at coffee shops.

Industrial design has become one of the few cards manufacturers can play these days. It's especially true for MP3 players, because the technology processes have become commoditized. At the end of the day, users will buy what they feel attached to, what they're happy with, what they can show off as part of their identity. Design is no longer an easy process that comes at the end. It's a matter of life and death, so it should come first.

Young Se Kim, 54, founded Innodesign in 1986. This past January, Bill Gates showed off the H10 during his keynote address at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

It's the Inside that Counts

Henri Crohas

Founder and CEO, Archos
Paris, France

I do not share the opinion that Apple's design for the iPod is any good. That's because I define great design in terms of fantastic machinery. And if you look inside the iPod's technology, it's quite common and unimpressive. It isn't anything special. What Apple has done well isn't the iPod, but iTunes. It has been the first to pull together all of these music editors and convince them that they have to open a big store online. But there's a second phase coming. Like the cell phone, the technology to integrate photos and videos is now available. Microsoft has been working on this for years. Its Windows Media Center is well advanced and does everything iTunes does, plus more.

We got into the MP3 business in 1999, with our first hard-drive player, the Jukebox 6000. That was a year and a half before the first iPod. When Apple hit it big in 2003, we were no longer interested in the music-only category. For the past five years, we've been focusing on what's coming next: the portable audio-video player. Our 20-gigabyte Gmini 400, which we released last September, has been very successful. It's the size of an iPod, costs the same as an iPod mini, but comes with 20 gigabytes and a larger LCD screen to play back video. And this video can be any type of video, from your computer or from TiVo. We think that the first source of media content is still TV. What we've done is make that content portable.

The way we design products is very much driven by the technology inside, whether it be combining video, audio, and music, or making our products wireless. Archos wants to continuously ride the wave of technology, so that means we tend to go away from the low end of the mass market. That's why we no longer make flash players. In order to do it now, you simply buy a reference design for the technology and then build a new interface. You can argue that you can differentiate with the design of the interface, but it's all the same, including Apple's. Archos is not competing in the same arena. Creative, Rio, iRiver... certainly those companies fight against Apple, because they want to reach the same target. But we are after something different. Apple may have won a battle when it comes to music, but it remains to be seen whether it will win the war against Microsoft.

Henri Crohas, 54, founded Archos in 1988. The Gmini 400, launched last September, has outsold the Apple iPod in the 20-GB category in Europe.

Outcool the Competition

Sim Wong Hoo

Founder and CEO, Creative Technology Ltd.
Singapore

When all anyone could talk about was the iPod, we were already thinking about how to outcool it. That was the design charter for the Zen Micro, which we released late last year, and we wanted to win in every aspect. We started off with the name, looking into the whole concept of Zen, then decided that it was a good direction and made it the basis for the design. It's not about the religion but the lifestyle: Zen is something simple yet powerful. Our player, the Zen Micro, is cool and clean, and we have it in 10 contrasting, electrified colors, so we can catch people's eye. Its curve fits into your hand, it has a mesmerizing blue glow, and there's top-injection molding. All of these are very Zen-like and give people a very warm and good feeling.

I am very passionate about design. Even though I can't design myself, I think I have a good eye for details. As the CEO, my job involves a lot of artist coaching, showing designers the right direction, how to look at the market, and what to go after. I have to keep them fresh, energized, and motivated. But at the same time, I can't let them run wild. If I did, I'd be left with crazy designs that only appeal to niche markets. I learned that lesson with the second-generation Nomad, which I let my designers talk me into releasing even though I personally didn't like it.

Of course, Creative's main competitor is Apple. It's always good to focus on the toughest guy, the top-tier guy out there. That way, we can at least be a strong number two. But I think the main reason why Apple is so popular is because of its blanket marketing. They've got billions of dollars I don't have. The market is exploding right now, and it's a crucial one we have to capture. So I have dedicated around $100 million in marketing this year. It's still a lot smaller compared to what Apple has spent, but I think it's especially important to give our MP3 players our number-one attention.

Unlike Apple, however, we are not going to spend our money trying to convince people that we are good. We are going to spend our money telling people what we offer. At Creative, more is better. Our products are packed with more features—an FM tuner and voice recorder, for example—and we're able to deliver this at a lower price. That's where we can win.

Sim Wong Hoo, 49, an engineer by training, founded Creative in 1981. It comes second only to Apple in total market share for MP3 players.

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