Scarcely a week after Apple Computer Inc. launched a new video-enabled iPod with much ado, iRiver has responded by announcing a video-equipped player dubbed the U10.
Like the iPod, the new device allows you to listen to music or view specially formatted videos on a small built-in screen.
However, the flash-based U10 only offers 1GB of storage and a 2.2-inch screen, which makes the device considerably more portable but somewhat tougher to read than the latest iPod.
iRiver adheres to Microsoft Corp.'s PlaysforSure specification, which makes it compatible with subscription-based music services such as Rhapsody to Go, Napster to Go and Yahoo Music Unlimited, which offer unlimited listening for a fixed monthly fee.
The U10 also boasts a user interface based on Macromedia Flash, and the unit plays specially designed Flash-based games and other media.
Flash is gaining growing acceptance as a format for streaming video and animation, a fact which may give the U10 access to types of material that few other media players can currently manage. It also allows users to control the unit by pressing areas on the screen rather than pushing buttons.
Making the display do double duty as a user interface has allowed iRiver to shrink the U10 to only 2.7 by 1.8 inches in size, less than half the size of the iPod. How easily customers will decipher the U10 user interface remains an open question, but iRiver is participating in Microsoft's recent initiative to make music players more intuitive to consumers, which should give the U10 owners a pleasing "out of box" experience.
With support for Windows Media Audio files as well as MP3, OGG music files and MPEG-4 video files, the player includes an FM tuner and an integrated voice recorder.
It can also store and display still photos, which can be transferred to the unit through its USB interface. The U10 also supports Microsoft's Digital Rights Management system, which aims to prevent piracy.
While trailing the iPod's market share by a ten-to-one margin, iRiver is still holding the number three position in the digital music player market with an 8.3 percent market share, according to NPD Techworld.
The company's prospects are also helped by its alliance with Microsoft, which still seeks to wrest leadership from iTunes with Microsoft-backed technology, but that remains a long, uphill battle at best.
In August, D&M Holdings Inc. shut down its Rio music player business, citing strategic reasons for the move, but industry analysts agreed that cutthroat competition in the digital music player business was probably a factor as well.
Reigncom, the Korean parent company of iRiver, has expressed a fierce level of commitment to the digital music player business, an attitude which may explain the company's quick product releases and rapid innovations. Whether those tactics will head off the iPod juggernaut remains to be seen.
The iRiver U10 will be available at retail in November, priced at $199.99 for the 512MB version and $249.99 for the 1GB version. With the product on the shelves in time for the peak holiday gift-giving season, this may be iRiver's best chance to steal some market share from Apple.