September 20, 2007

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The more things change
...the more obsolete toys one accumulates
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

My, how things do change quickly in this business.

Take as a for instance, oh, I don’t know, last week’s column. It was about the new generation of 16GB flash music players coming onto the market, and it mentioned a half-dozen of them available now or soon.

Wouldn’t you know it, the very day after I submitted that column to the paper, and too late to sneak in updated info before press time, yet another contender entered the fray. Normally I’d say “meh,” but this contender is a big brand name and beat everyone else’s price hands down.

The cost? $200, undercutting Creative’s ugly cheapo unit, the Zen V Plus, by a good 50 bucks. The player is the SanDisk Sansa View, essentially a design and capacity upgrade to the popular Sansa e200 series. It came with none of the hype of the iPods, just quietly sauntered onto the scene with a calm “hey, I’m here too, and I’m wicked cheap.” Half the price of the 16GB iPod Touch, in fact, and two-thirds the price of the Creative ZEN, which it matches nearly feature for feature.

How can they do it? Well, it helps that that SanDisk is one of a very few actual manufacturers of the precious flash memory that goes inside these players. Everyone else has to buy it from Samsung or Hyundai or somebody. That’s right: they cut out the middleman. Add to that the minor change from the previous model and bang, a next-generation player at the previous generation’s prices.

That’s not the only change. Originally, Apple said it was shipping the iPod Touch “by Sep. 28.” Well, people have already started getting them. Looks like the supply chain fairy favored Steve Jobs once again.

This kind of rapid change in the electronics market is hardly unique to portable media players, though. Everyone knows a personal computer is obsolete the minute you take it home. No sooner did DVD become ubiquitous than HD-DVD and Blu-Ray started duking it out to be the newer, higher-quality video disc standard. Heck, Apple dropped the price of the 8GB iPhone by a third, from $600 down to $400, just two months after its initial release, ticking off a good number of early adopters. The company had to placate them with a $100 credit to the Apple Store.

To keep from getting run over by the upgrade cycle, there are a couple strategies you can take.

Adopt early. You’ll pay the most, but you’ll get the most time with a product that’s state of the art.

Stay one step behind. When new stuff comes out, the previous product line generally gets a sizable price cut. If you’re content with slightly older tech, this gets you the most time with a product that’s second best.

Wait for price wars. Competition truly is good for the consumer. Microsoft and Sony regularly announce price cuts for their game console systems, so even if the one you don’t want comes down, see if the other company responds in a couple days.

Keep your receipts. Just sayin’.