A coming of age’

With the launch of the video-playing iPod, the stage may finally be set for a new era in portable media devices. David Hellaby looks at the challenges so far.

When Microsoft announced the launch of the Portable Media Center concept at the beginning of 2004, it suggested the handheld device would revolutionise personal entertainment.
Not only could they store and play the popular MP3 music format, they also could play videos, show off your happy snaps, play a few games and double as your PDA.

Of course, Microsoft had more than a vested interest because while it was not making the hardware, PMCs were designed to run a special version of Microsoft Windows and were seen as a portable version of Microsoft?s larger Windows Media Center PC.

Several companies including the likes of Samsung and Creative announced they would be jumping on the PMC bandwagon and, sure enough, since then the market has seen more than 20 models of portable media player go on sale – though mostly in the US. The interesting thing for many market watchers has been that only some of the PMCs have been based on Microsoft?s software.

But they do have one thing in common. Known variously as portable media centres, portable media players/recorders, portable digital video recorders and portable video players, they have failed to set the market alight. Only Sony?s PSP (PlayStation Portable), which is foremost a games console with video playing capabilities, and the latest fifth-generation video iPod have created any real excitement and so far and look to have the goods to survive and thrive.

That has come as no surprise to industry analysts. At least two large international industry research groups ? Jupiter Research and IDC – have warned manufacturers that they face a hard time convincing consumers to buy PMCs. A Jupiter survey of 5,000 people in Europe late last year showed less than five percent interested in buying one and only about 13 percent wanted to watch video while away from home. By comparison a third of those surveyed said they wanted to listen to music on a portable music player like an iPod.

So what is the problem with PMCs? Simply, they attempt to do too many things in too small a space at too high a price. The handheld entertainment market is littered with failures. Only a few companies can really claim major successes ? Nintendo with its Game Boy, Sony with its Walkman and Apple?s iPod stand out. All have three key ingredients for success ? simplicity, good battery life and price. In the early 90s both Atari with its Lynx and Sega with its Game Gear launched concerted attacks on the Game Boy market and failed miserably despite having consoles that were technically superior. They had colour screens and larger displays than the mono Game Boy, but the superior performance came at a higher price and poorer battery life.