I started writing this entry about “Giving advice on technology to friends and family…”, but I realized after I had rambled on for a bit, that it was more about technology decisions… when companies force us to decide between MP3 and WMA or iTunes and WMP or even Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio or Blu-Ray DVD vs. HD-DVD… in every case, there will generally be a wrong decision that you can make. I hate that situation, it can stop me dead in my tracks from adopting a technology altogether…

As is probably true for most of the people who read this blog, people often ask me for advice about

technical matters, even things that I have no real training or credentials in. Case in point, it seems

everyone these days is asking me what type of music player to buy (MP3/WMA player that is). I guess

that is a sign of widespread adoption, when even the non-gadget folks are getting into a technology, but

being a computer-related gadget, I’m automatically assumed to know what I’m talking about. Well, I

certainly have my opinions, and I know a fair bit about how it all works, but I have to be honest and tell

you that I haven’t really spent much time looking at the ‘other’ side of the world in terms of music

players. When someone first asked me what player they should buy, I decided that I needed to look into

the various iPods so that I could consider them as options, but I was very puzzled by what I found. I had

assumed a few things that turned out to be incorrect. I knew that iTunes was focused on MP3, and I

knew that it didn’t support WMA, but I had no idea that it only supported one family of devices (iPods). I

was also surprised to learn that there wasn’t any real alternatives to iTunes for putting music onto those

devices as well.

Personally, these facts ended up being a deal-killer for me… I couldn’t recommend an iPod to

anyone in my family without worrying that they would end up unhappy in the end. Now, don’t get me

wrong, iPods seem great and wonderful and I am 100% sure that anyone in my family who tried one

would like it… but things change over time and they eventually may want to buy another device. At that

point, after they’ve put all their music into iTunes and when they know no other way to work with digital

music, what choice will they have? Can they buy a Rio device and sync it with iTunes (without using

hacks… that is definitely not mother-friendly)? By recommending an iPod for a single christmas

purchase, I would be locking them into one set of software and hardware for a very long time. Instead, I

end up looking around at all the other options (Rio, iRiver, Creative, Samsung). These devices work with both

WMA and MP3 (and some work with other formats as well) and they work with multiple media players,

including but not limited to Windows Media Player. So, if I recommend a Rio today, and they decide

they want the new “brand x” player in 3 years… odds are they won’t have a problem just syncing their

existing music files with that new device, probably with the same software…

It ends up being a dilemma for me though, knowing that I have unreconcilable differences with a line

of devices/software that is very popular and may well be the current market leader, and still trying to

provide folks who ask with the best possible advice. I’ve had this problem before though, where I have

fundamental issues with a brand or product, but other factors keep forcing it back into my list of likely

choices. Sony has always been that way for me. I love their stuff, I always look at them first for TVs and

audio equipment… I have a Sony camera, a Sony TV, a Sony camcorder, a Sony stereo and CD

changer in my car, etc… but they don’t support WMA and that is a pain in the butt for me… since all my

music is already ripped into that format. So when it is time to buy a new car stereo (my current one is a

bit smashed up from a failed burglary attempt), I’ve decided that it makes sense to get one with WMA

support… and yet I keep looking at the Sony models.

It is a sickness perhaps.

My brother asked me a few years ago if a Sony “network walkman” would be a good digital music player and I said that it was a

Sony… it would probably be great. Horrible mistake. The software that came with it forced you to

‘check-out’ music to put it onto the player… then you had to check it back in (removing it off the player) if

you wanted to use it on your computer. Windows Media Player could work with the player in certain

circumstances involving weird driver and device configuration, and then you could sync files like ’normal’,

but my brother never managed to get anything other than the Sony software working. He has a Rio now,

a little 64mb job that he was able to expand using SD cards, and he has been much happier… although

the Sony device certainly looked nicer. In the end though, I’m still easily tempted by Sony; I saw that

they had a new digital music player and I clicked on the link in seconds, even though I’ll never buy it.

Whenever I decide to spend the money on a new car stereo (it still works, what’s a cracked faceplate

worth?) I know I’m going to find it hard not to just get a new Sony one… brand loyalty that goes against

my technical opinions.

I have vowed on numerous occasions to refuse to give advice on these topics, but people keep

asking and I keep telling them what I think. I don’t actually have any doubts about my advice, I try very

hard to be objective and break down the options for them so that they can make the final choice, but you

never know whether or not it will be the best possible choice for that particular person and their

situation. When you are making the choice for yourself, you accept that risk that you are making the wrong decision… and you decide to live with that risk, but it is always hard for me to make a similar decision for some one else, some one who might end up frustrated with the result in a few years time. Sure, it is only a gadget, but try telling that to someone who spent $2,000 dollars on music for iTunes or Napster (or has even taken the time to rip a few hundred CDs to a certain format) and has now decided that they don’t want to use that technology anymore.