Treating yourself to a dose of audio entertainment on-the-go was made possible in the final year of the 1970s with the introduction of the world's first commercial portable player, the Sony Walkman. In an age where miniaturization is king, the Japanese company made a global impact on the world with this portable cassette player. Following through with that, two more physical audio formats came into play as the 1980s came by, namely the Compact Disc (CD) and the Mini-Disc (MD), which was given due attention by major manufacturers of the time.
Interestingly, the advent of the digital audio player (DAP) was not through the hands of the giants of the time, but by a Korean company, SaeHan Information Systems. 1997 was a major turning point in the portable player arena, when the Korean company SaeHan Information Systems created the very first DAP and released it under the MPMan moniker by the middle of 1998.
The license was subsequently acquired by Eiger Labs and the Eiger Labs MPMan made its debut in the North American market by the summer of 1998. Timed just perfectly at the start of the digital audio era, the MPMan was a player introduced with 32MB capacity that houses typically up to 8 music tracks in the MP3 format. There was no optional memory expansion other than sending the MPMan back to Eiger Labs to upgrade its RAM to 64MB.
Though the MPMan is touted as the ancestor to the generic audio (and video) players of today, it did not receive the acclaimed success of its followers. Ironically, for those who value battery life, the MPMan, being a player running on a solid state drive, could run for up to 9 hours on a single charge, which was impressive for its time and perhaps ahead of its time.
In that same year, the development of a DAP utilizing high capacity hard drives was spearheaded by Compaq, licensing the design to HanGo Electronics Co., Ltd. of South Korea and in 1999, the world saw the introduction of the very first hard drive based DAP, the Personal Jukebox (PJB-100) which houses up to 4.8GB worth of songs, amounting up to almost 1,200 tracks in a single device. This would set a precedence of high capacity DAPs that provides you with a seemingly infinite number of songs on a single device. This trend was quickly adopted by both Apple and Creative as each company churned out their own DAPs at the start of the 21st century.
Apple's first foray into the MP3 scene was in 2001 when its first generation 5GB iPod came into the picture. What Apple set out to do is to work on and improve upon a concept that has been proven popular with consumers as the digital audio era was on the rise. Putting much thought into the design of its iPod series, especially the interface. it went from its Classic lineup to newer iterations such as the Mini, Shuffle and finally, Touch series. More importantly, the introduction of its iTunes Store by 2003 made the iPod series even more successful, allowing you to purchase tracks in the digital format and bidding farewell to the physical CD medium.
Creative started off the race with the introduction of two separate line of devices that utilizes either flash memory or micro hard drives. Initially branded as the NOMAD and branching out into the NOMAD ZEN and NOMAD MuVo series, the NOMAD name was dropped in 2004 and Creative players are now branded under the ZEN and MuVo series respectively.
Whilst Apple's iPods were initially designed for its Mac users (following which, was supported on the Windows platform), the limitations of only having music available on your iTunes player on the iPod would form a barrier for some users. The advent of its competitors such as Creative gave users more options with the ability of its players to transfer music via normal file transfer methods without the need to go thru iTunes.
Beyond the capacity to operate as a portable audio player, video playback was soon added to the functionality list with the introduction of the very first portable media player (PMP) from Archos with its Archos Jukebox Multimedia back in 2002 and the brand has solidified itself as one of the leading portable media players in the market.
As with the case of DAPs, other companies picked up on this trend and soon included video playback support on their next generation of portable media players. The very first portable video player from Apple saw the light of day in 2005 with its fifth generation iPod Classic. The Creative camp started operation just slightly earlier at 2004 when it announced the Zen Portable Media Center.
Fast-forward to our current timeline, and we are now looking at what is essentially a deciding point for the portable media player market. With convergence as the next big thing, it takes more than just higher capacities and display resolutions for the portable media player manufacturers to stand out amongst the sea of devices.
Add to the fact that some of the top-end smartphones have enough capabilities to vie as a portable media player quite comfortably with several mobile manufacturers rolling out their own preferred media platforms to complete the consumers' purchasing circle, the traditional PMP vendors have their work cut out for them ahead.
Truly portable PMPs could very well be on their last leg before the multimedia mobile phone equivalents take up this space and thus rendering PMPs to a niche segment of larger screen devices like 5-inches and larger. Pure portable audio players (e.g. the iPod Shuffle) would likely be around for a much longer period since they can be extremely small in physical size. Small photo and video based PMPs are however likely to see the axe since the mobile phone already sports a decent sized screen and is evolving to cater to multimedia needs. It should be interesting to see how this segment fares in the next couple of years and if there is still demand for such devices in the long run. For now, let's recap how this space has progressed through the years.