Fifteen Questions Prompted by Today’s Apple Event

By  |  Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 1:24 pm

iPod Nano with VideoIt seems to be a mandatory component of the kabuki that is Apple press events and coverage thereof: Nearly every such product rollout is initially dismissed as a disappointment. Despite the welcome return of Steve Jobs, this morning’s one certainly is certainly getting lukewarm reviews, in part because it failed to involve even such relatively mundane rumored gizmos as an iPod Touch with a camera.

I came with my expectations firmly in check, and saw at least one bit of news which will change my life as a user of technology for the better (iTunes’ new tools for managing iPhone apps). So while I may not have been wowed, I also wasn’t nonplussed by the lack of all-new products or other major developments. And as usual, a lot of what was interesting at this event had as much to do with implications as the concrete facts. After the photo of Steve, fourteen questions and attempts at answers…

Steve Jobs

What was the big story this morning? Other than the appearance of Steve Jobs, I think it’s the evolution of the iPod brand. It used to be about music. Then music and video playback. Now Apple is pitching the Touch as a computer that plays games, and some people are going to think of the new Nano as a videocamera that plays music, not a music player that shoots video. It’s all part of ensuring that iPod doesn’t go away even though we’re at the beginning of the end of the era of stand-alone music players.

What was the most surprising news this morning? Other than the appearance of Steve Jobs, it was something small but fascinating: the arrival of an FM radio as a built-in iPod feature. Given that they’ve been nearly standard on other companies’ MP3 players for eons, I assumed that Apple had a religious opposition to them, not unlike its stance on two-button mice.

How come so little in the way of new products? I dunno! Maybe the rumors about camera-related delays explain the surprising lack of a new Touch and a new Classic, other than the capacity bumps. If so, we’ll probably see other camera-equipped models show up in the not-too-distant future, just as the unibody 17-inch MacBook Pro turned up later than the 13- and 15-inch versions.

So it was just about technical issues? Well, it’s undeniable that all the iPods except the Touch are profoundly mature gizmos. The Classic has evolved as much as it’s going to; the era of a new Nano in a radically different form factor every year is over. And that means it’s possible that the era of an Apple music event happening every single September is over–at least an event dominated by new iPod hardware.

Is it disappointing that there was no new camera-equipped Touch? Well, I feel for the folks at my live coverage who sounded…kind of devastated by the fact that the Touch didn’t get an upgrade. Me, I still think it would be neat if we saw a Touch that was a more distinct product than an iPhone-without-the-phone. You could certainly build a Touch that was optimized for gaming. Wonder if we’ll have to wait a year for a truly new Touch, or whether Apple might break with tradition and release something sooner?

Is it disappointing that there was no new camera-equipped Classic? Well, given the rumors that the Classic was a goner, I guess it’s nice to see it receive a stay of execution. But I think a Classic with a video camera could be cool, if for no other reason than the fact that its 160GB hard disk would let you shoot 160 hours of video without offloading it to a computer.

Is this the end of the line for the Classic? I’d tend to think so–a year from now, a 128GB Touch will be practical–but would be pleased to be proven wrong.

Just how good is the iPod Nano’s camera? It’s 640-by-480, so it won’t excel based on sheer megapixels. The one on the iPhone 3GS captures video at the same resolution and is decent, but not as good as even the standard-definition Flip. Jobs praised the quality of the Nano’s video camera this morning, and showed some samples that were appealing, but drew no direct comparison to either the 3GS or the Flip. Also unknown: the quality of the Nano’s microphone. (Flips do surprisingly good sound.)

What does this mean for the Flip? Well, it’s not good news! Lots of folks will still find the higher-end HD Flips interesting, but a tiny $149 8GB Nano is going to provide pretty stiff competition for the much chunkier $149 4GB low-end Flip.

What does this mean for the Zune HD? Less than a month ago, its pricing ($219 for 16GB, $289 for 32GB) looked way cheap compared to the iPod Touch. Now the Touch line starts at a lower price point ($199 for 8GB), includes a 32GB model for only $10 more than the 32GB HD, and tops out at a $399 version with double the memory of the high-end Zune. Bottom line: few people will buy the Zune HD because it’s cheaper.

So you’re saying the Zune HD doesn’t stand a chance? No, from everything Microsoft has released about it, it’s an interesting gadget in its own right, with slick industrial design, an OLED screen, higher-resolution video out than the Touch, HD radio and a solid Web browser.  Unless we’re surprised by a robust app store, it’s going to be a media device, not the pocket computer that the Touch has evolved into–but it’s still the most interesting Zune to date by far. And if the stats Apple quoted today that have Microsoft controlling 1 percent of the MP3 player market are correct, the bar for selling better than the current Zunes isn’t high.

Is Apple afraid of the Zune HD? Well, “afraid” is a loaded term, and I doubt that even Microsoft expects the new Zune to instantly gain massive market share. It was interesting to see Phil Schiller position the Touch as a pocket-sized computer and game machine this morning, though–if you decide between a Touch and a Zune based on sheer versatility, there’s absolutely no contest. I think the company’s at least mildly intrigued by the arrival of the Zune HD, at least, and wants to make sure that prospective customers know all the things a Touch can do that a Zune HD can’t.

Is iTunes 9 exciting? I’m downloading it even as we speak, and will let you know. I’m provisionally excited about the new tools for managing my iPhone’s apps, though, as well as the home copying features. And I plan to buy an iTunes LP album or two, if there are any available that tickle my fancy. (As far as I know, it’s unclear just how many “LPs” Apple plans to make available, especially for back-catalog titles.)

Is it awful that the Beatles still aren’t on iTunes? No. You want me to come over and show you how to rip your Beatles CDs?

What’s the single thing you’re most disappointed wasn’t announced? You mean not counting non-music-related things such as tablets? It woulda been neat if there’d been news involving iTunes moving to the cloud. As TechCrunch’s MG Siegler says, it seems inevitable, and it has the potential to be bigger news than just about any new iPod could be.

More thoughts after I’ve played with iTunes 9 and gotten some hands-on time with a new Nano. In the meantime, how would you rate today’s Apple news–and do you have any questions of your own or responses to mine?

 
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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Fanfoot Says:

    Disappointments? Personally I would have liked to see an OLED screen on the new Touch, but maybe that’ll come when they work out the camera issues. I’m primarily interested in this as a battery play for a next-gen iPhone really, but would be cool to see Apple embrace the new tech.

    And a 128GB Touch would have been nice, killing off the Classic in the process. As it stands I doubt we’ll be seeing anything bigger than a 64GB iPhone come out next year. So maybe in two years when my iPhone 3GS is up?

    Faster flash access in a new Touch would be nice too. I don’t know about you, but syncing my iPhone still takes too long. Its easy to parallize operations on flash memory, as SSDs have shown, and this would be a nice performance tweak.

    Speaking of Flash, I’d love to see Flash/Move streaming added to the Apple TV, so I can watch Hulu, TV.com, ABC.com etc on my TV using the Apple TV. A step like that just might make the thing (slightly more) popular.

    And games on the Apple TV would be nice too–along with an app store of course.

    Anything about more content sooner (e.g. movies closer to day of DVD release) would have been appreciated.

    I’m also wondering about this whole Home thing. Will I be able to synchonize the ENTIRE music catalog between two iTunes libraries on two computers in my house, or will it only synchronize newly purchased stuff from the iTunes STORE? I rip stuff, buy it from Amazon, etc, and I’m kinda wondering if this will ignore all those things.

  2. NanoGeek Says:

    “I’m also wondering about this whole Home thing. Will I be able to synchonize the ENTIRE music catalog between two iTunes libraries on two computers in my house, or will it only synchronize newly purchased stuff from the iTunes STORE? I rip stuff, buy it from Amazon, etc, and I’m kinda wondering if this will ignore all those things.”

    From what they said, I believe that it will sync everything. But don’t take my word for it.

  3. John Baxter Says:

    There is a diode (effectively) somewhere at home. Machine a can play machine b’s music, but b can’t see a’s music. Firewall setups appear identical. Appears to be “all” but I haven’t demonstrated that.

    I will be buying a Zune HD (shortly after release–not day 1 or preorder. Not a Nano right away. Maybe later; maybe not until existing Nano dies.
    –John

  4. Tim F. Says:

    I don’t think the video is possible on a HDD-based iPod. The memory buffer is, what? 32MB… Is it possible to write live video data fast enough to a HDD?

  5. heulenwolf Says:

    @McCracken
    I like your analyses that 1) the big news is that iPods have evolved to be about more than music and 2) more specifically, that Apple’s focus on the Touch as a portable computer and gaming device sets is apart in the market. As an owner of a Touch for nearly 2 years, now, I can say I’ve only bought 1 game for it and I don’t play it much. I do use and appreciate its mobile computing capabilities extensively, however.

    So, my questions are, 1) where does the video and voice -recording, FM time-shifting, step-counting Nano fit into the product line? You can now get a feature that was previously specific to their highest-end iPhone 3GS (video) as well as features that aren’t in any of their other devices (FM tuning, pedometry) in their cheapest iPod (with buttons). 2) Having no other medium than USB syncing to get the video and pedometry data off the Nano, what the heck is the current market of ADHD’ers going to do with those features? At least the Touch, with its WiFi capabilities and greater storage, would have a hope of doing something compelling with these features. The iPhone 3G, left without them, would be able to do even more with its always-connected service and integrated GPS. Yet they cost more and don’t have these new features. I’m confused.

    @Tim F.
    Yes, HD’s are well suited to writing video in real time. The Flip’s HD 720p videos, once encoded in H.264, have a 9 Mbit/s bitrate: http://www.theflip.com/products_flip_ultra_specs.II.shtml Even wimpy 1.8″ hard drives can write a that slightly over 1 MByte/s rate, sequentially. It’d be no challenge for a magnetic HD to handle the lower-res video the Nano is outputting.

    @Fanfoot
    Don’t you think the Touch is expensive enough? Well performing Flash SSDs alone in 128 MB capacities are still in the funny-money price range for most folks. Slapping one of those in a Touch, even if they could make it fit, would be inordinately expensive. e.g. http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Submit=ENE&N=2010150636%201421430849&name=128GB

    @NanoGeek
    I’m with you. If the home sharing only syncs purchases through iTunes, it will be far less useful, though still useful. My fiancee and I have wasted a few bucks buying the same tracks on two different computers. I wonder if they consider downloads from Audible, for example, purchased content or just another outside audio file?

  6. Chipotle Says:

    Fanfoot: while I’d like to see more done with the Apple TV as well, there’s still no indication Apple really knows what to do with the product. I think their old claim that it’s “just a hobby” is a little disingenuous, but even so, Apple seems to only exert the minimum effort necessary to keep giving the people at Vudu heartburn.

    The presence of “social” features in iTunes 9 is interesting, though — taken with the last updates to iMovie and iPhoto, it shows a relatively new openness on Apple’s part to integrate with third-party services. Hope for Hulu on the Apple TV? Maybe, but so far Apple seems to think Youtube and the iTunes Store are sufficient — so the question becomes whether they’re going to try to push the Store to be a better competitor. The background question, of course, is whether their licensing allows them to do that. AFAIK there’s still no “official” support for Hulu on *any* set top box, and we can be pretty sure that’s not because of any technical limitation.

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