Mitch Ratcliffe: "Musicians, for all they know about how to twang our heartstrings are not the folks I want building my consumer electronics. I also don't want political advice from Leonardo Dicaprio or Mel Gibson."

In response to Robert Scoble’s open letter to Bill Gates asking Microsoft to get committed to building an interesting music player, Mitch points out that giving users carte blanche to design products that they want isn't always the best idea. The result will almost always try to do to many things, over-solve problems and be waaayyy to expensive to manufacture and sell. The real magic lies with taking an understanding of the problems faced by users and then building a solution that solves this problem in accordance with the customers requirements. Solve problem first, match requirements second.

Figuring the size of this problem space is critical. Overjudge and you've got too many widgets; shoot too low and it doesn't do what customers want. Nothing good ever comes from products that try to solve "the entire problem".

Here's what I suspect the designers of the iPod picked as their problem space;

Customers love portable music, but digital music (MP3s) are not easily portable. They can either listen to them on their personal computers or on under-powered, overly complex MP3 players. A device that;

1) makes it easy to transfer music from the PC to the device;
2) has tons of storage (multi-gigabyte);
3) has great battery-life (five+ hours);
4) is small enough to jog with;

...makes digital music much, much more portable than it is today.

Once they'd figured out what they thought the problem was, Apple went out and built a product that met their customers requirements - and now they own the solution to that problem space.

Anyone that wants to come into and attack the iPod now has to give the market a better answer to those problems or find a new problem to solve. If I were Microsoft, I wouldn't be much interested in helping my OEMs deal with the former problem except at a superficial level. The fact that Apple is making a killing at the iPod doesn't change the fact that these same customers still have problems that need to be solved.

For instance -

Suburban users cannot effectively listen to their music in a simple and seamless manner as they move throughout their day. This class of customers prefers the simplicity of FM radio, but yearns for the depth and personal involvement that comes from listening to their own music. A device that;

1) Makes it easy to listen to an entire CD collection at home, in the car and at the office;
2) untethers people from specific listening devices;
3) has great battery life (10+ hours);
4) has tons of storage (40+gb);
5) is small enough to fit into a purse, glove compartment, briefcase or suitjacket pocket.

...would make it much easier for suburban dwellers to listen to the music they enjoy throughout their entire day.

So what am I describing here? An MP3 transporter that lets me listen to my music through my home stereo, car stereo and office PC speakers. Arguably, some of the current crop of devices purports to solve this problem, but in their reach to solve other problems, this one is "undersolved". The solutions aren't "just good enough" in any way. Existing solutions to this problem are vying for the mindshare that FM radio currently owns - not Apple. Unfortunately, they are universally too complicated, underperforming and typically, too expensive to usurp the current broadcast king.

Solve this problem and get a chance at owning a big portion of  the market that twiddles the FM dial. Make it easy for people to leave Clear Channel and I bet you they will. Even better, build something that decisively addresses this need and you've got a serious contender to the iPod on your hands.

Apple has never been great at capitalizing on the second wave of innovation. Effectively dealing with sustaining innovations has typically been Apple's biggest weakness and anyone that gets into position for the day that the iPod cow stops giving milk will be well positioned to assume leadership in this very early stage market.

As a side note, Mitch also points out a classic example of what happens when customers get to build what they think they want;