Author: Editors Desk, Robert Steiner Source: Variety:
July 9, 2024 at 10:52

Get ready, Y2K nostalgists: TikTok may be getting into the music player business.

The main question, however, is why even bother?

Last week, Music Business Worldwide came across a U.S. patent for a “Method and Device for Music Play” by TikTok parent company ByteDance, filed last December. The 20-page application shows diagrams of a device described as a “target application for playing music,” with a similar control layout and display to TikTok and the budding TikTok Music platform.

For Millennials and older Gen Zers, this gadget may sound a lot like an iPod Touch — one of the final iterations of Apple’s pioneering music player — but one that will presumably support TikTok Music and include some interactive bells and whistles. 

There are features such as a sleep timer, a “Music for Children” option and an “Exciting” mode that will “[represent] music content in a way more than sound,” via vibrations and flashing lights triggered to a given song. 

That all sounds well and good, but precedent is decidedly not on TikTok’s side if it’s truly taking the hardware plunge

There is already a landfill of devices dumped by software companies that very publicly botched the jump to hardware. Spotify is the latest to join the club, as it prepares to end support for the Car Thing, the creatively named Spotify-only audio player for your car. The Thing was both made publicly available and discontinued in 2022, but any existing units out in the world will now be rendered useless on Dec. 9 of this year.

Several factors arguably led to Car Thing’s demise, including the company’s official explanation of "streamlining our product offerings” and that the Thing was scarcely marketed and required a paid Spotify account to use

But chief among them was simply a lack of need: Most cars produced in the last several years already support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which let drivers use Spotify as well as numerous other phone apps. Older cars might have benefited from the Car Thing, but, even then, there are plenty of aftermarket interfaces that offer more features than just using Spotify

The Car Thing succumbed to a fatal flaw of any dedicated music-playing device, even the mighty iPod: Today, most people just listen to music through their phone

A lack of reason to exist has been the kiss of death for countless tech companies attempting to build the next great doohickie. The Microsoft Zune was too late in a post-iPod world to make an impact, while Google Glass’ price was too high for doing everything a phone could do, just pretentiously.

Or take the brief trend of mobile devices tied to an online platform, such as the Twitter PeekAmazon Fire Phone or three separate models by Facebook and HTC. Why does it matter if your phone has a built-in Facebook button when the free Facebook app exists for all phones?

But for TikTok, a potential route to success may come down to framing. After the first generation of the Snap Spectacles were marketed as chunky, adorkable smart glasses for hipsters and subsequently underperformed, the company transformed its Spectacles 3 into a sleek (and pricier) high-fashion statement. 

Meta pulled a similar move with its Ray-Bans-backed Smart Glasses. Embracing the status-symbol aspect of this tech rather than the mass-market ideals and world-disrupting dogma of Silicon Valley has worked out for Meta and Snap — for now, at least — so maybe that’s the winning play for ByteDance as well.

 And if you squint hard enough, you can perhaps discern the logic for a TikTok music player, as 2000s nostalgia is white hot among TikTok’s mostly Gen Z audience, so a modern take on a quintessential Y2K item could be a winner. There’s also the appeal of having entertainment that doesn’t rely on staring at a screen, especially for young kids. 

Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in fact, recently invested £18 million (roughly $23 million USD) into the startup Yoto, which produces screenless audio players for kids. ByteDance might be picking up a similar wavelength given that it specifically included a “Music for Children” feature in the patent. 

It’s worth noting that the China-based ByteDance has filed over 9,000 patents globally as of 2023. Bloomberg Law reports that around 900 of those patents are in the U.S. alone, therefore unclear if this audio player patent is high priority or just to prevent someone else from filing first. 

At any rate, bringing the device to market may be a long and bumpy ride, since TikTok Music is only in a handful of countries. Getting that platform to U.S. consumers may also be a sensitive subject considering TikTok and Universal Music Group recently settled their various disagreements. 

Still, considering the ByteDance patent comes just a few years after TikTok’s own patent for a “portable wireless computing device” that could download “digital music content,” a future with TikTok hardware is a real possibility.

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