iPod Ruminations

The Nano now with Video and FM Tuner

The Nano now with Video and FM Tuner

What’s next for Apple? The venerable iPod is almost 8 years old, but it wasn’t always the market maker it is today. For the first three years iPod sales were less than stellar because those first iPods only worked with Apple computers, this at a time when Apple had only 4% of the computer market. Sales reflected that limping along at roughly a million a quarter until the 2004 Christmas Season when the 1st iPod Photo, or 4g iPod to use the lingo, was released in October.  iPod sales caught fire, shifting from an interesting but optional item for the Mac-owning music lover niche to a must-have accessory for everyone.

Last week the newest iPods were released amidst the usual speculation and media hype. The Nano, as expected, now costs less, has a video camera and in a surprise, got FM Radio. The iPod Touch got more storage and a reduced price while the Classic just got more storage for the same price.  iTunes was also spiffed up with some new eye candy and capabilities but no substantial improvements to a user-interface that has really begun to show its age. The continued accretion of new capabilities makes the program ever more unwieldy and it’s time for Apple to focus some of their efforts on rethinking the interface and capabilities. Meredith Kench has a great summation of some of the limitations of iTunes on her blog.

Some observations. 

The Nano’s video camera is cool but why did they limit its capabilities? For some reason they gave the camera video capabilities with 15 different video effects like security camera and thermal imager, but no still photo capability – cynics and pricing realists will speculate this is intentional with the goal of driving adoption of the iPhone. I concur, although supposedly there is a technical reason for this involving sensor thickness, who knows the real story. But back to the camera, why did they place it where they did? Was it expediency in trying to get a design to market or was it Steve Jobs’ absence that allowed it to happen? The number one complaint that I’ve read and heard about the Nano is that to use the camera you have to hold the Nano awkwardly or your fingers will cover the lens. For a company that owes its very existence to beautiful design and great user interfaces you’d think the video camera placement would be near the top of the device, not at the very bottom.

The addition of FM radio was especially interesting  because in the past Jobs is on record as saying people didn’t want FM radio on their digital music players. And kudos to them for taking the radio one step further with the Tivo-like live buffer allowing people to pause a radio program for up to 15 minutes. Of course I wonder who the audience is for the new Nano. Is it some strange hybrid of  people who’ve never bought an iPod before but who’ll find the radio additions compelling enough to whip out their wallets because the Nano will be useful for working out while listening to NPR or Sports Radio; or are they actually responding to competition from the Microsoft and Sandisk products and trying to maintain feature parity?

For me the Nano is somewhat less compelling  because I live in one of the few states where NPR broadcasts primarily on AM radio – WRNI AM 1290 – so the iPod Nano won’t be useful for listening to NPR but at least when I work out I could now listen to the Red Sox on WEEI-FM – so I’ve got that going for me. Of course Rhode Island’s population of potential buyers doesn’t even equal a rounding error in Apple’s sales projections – although RI does have an Apple store.

Back to the iPod lineup. Although it wasn’t announced as such I think this will be the last of the iPod Classics – sure they upped the storage to 160GB from 120GB, but they didn’t do anything else and upping the storage merely brings the Classic back to its 2007 capabilities. This is the classic sign of a product entering its cash cow and end-of-life stage where it’s milked for profits – which should be considerable at this point given the diminishing cost of storage. The lack of any other compelling features or additions to the Classic combined with the continued doubling the iPod touch and iPhone’s storage capabilities and reductions in the cost of storage signal that the end is near for the venerable Classic. After all the Classic hasn’t changed substantially in five years, in either form or function, beyond the addition of video.

I won’t completely discount the possibility that the Classic might hang on for one more generation while the iPod Touch increases to 128gb or more of storage, but after that you reach the point when the Classic is no longer viable without significant price reductions –  to quote the Rainmakers song  Shiny Shiny – “Some things are classic and some things are just old”.  Even though the Classic can hold 160gb of music, photos and videos (actually somewhat less) iTunes is famous for its sluggishness when song libraries exceed 100gb – taking forever to open and close. So unless Apple re-architects iTunes to handle large data volumes, I don’t foresee Apple bringing out a 500Gb iPod or its equivalent.

The iTouch dropped below the magical $200 price point with the 8gb iTouch, but the best deal might be the 32gb iTouch for $299 – faster and with 4 times the storage for only a 50% price increase. The most glaring omission is a lack of the video/still camera for the iTouch. Removing the camera provides differentiation and again will drive buyers to the iPhone. It might also increase adoption with some business clients who appreciate the functionality and flexibility of the App Store but might not want to use devices with cameras. The iPhone still beckons for those businesses who want both the App Store functionality and a camera for their devices.

The product generating the most speculation and buzz was the one product that was hoped for but wasn’t announced. The mythical Apple iPod Tablet – lots of people claim to have seen it and price points are projected to be anywhere from $599 to $799 for a device supposedly having a 7 to 10-inch diagonal touch-sensitive screen. I have no doubt that such a device is coming eventually, the only question is when, for how much, and what will it be able to do.

No one is better than Apple at keeping their cards to themselves so we’ll just have to wait for the iPod Tablet if and when it ever get here. What are your thoughts on Apple’s newest iPod lineup? Good, Great, Mediocre? Let me know. – t

For more information on the history of the iPod, wikipedia has a very detailed chart here.

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