By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 1:24 pm
It 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…
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?