Apple's Sept. 1 event in San Francisco saw the debut of new iPods, a revamped Apple TV and several new services, including a social network devoted to music. Those items are virtually guaranteed to give Apple buzz heading into the holiday shopping season, but they could also bring the company into more fierce competition with some of the biggest names in tech: Facebook, Microsoft and Google.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs kicked off his presentation of the revamped iPods by saying, "This year, we've gone wild." The iPod Shuffle, iPod Nano and iPod Touch all underwent substantial hardware and software upgrades, with the latter receiving an integrated HD video camera and FaceTime video-conferencing application. Previous to the event, pundits and analysts generally felt that Apple would refresh the iPod line, along with Apple TV-predictions that by and large proved correct.
Next week, the company will introduce iOS 4.1, with a number of bug fixes, followed by iOS 4.2 for iPad. The operating system updates will include a Games Center and wireless printing, two features guaranteed to clash with mobile offerings from Microsoft. Jobs spent some of his onstage time highlighting the Games Center's focus on multiplayer, which makes the platform a contender against not only Nintendo and Sony's portable game systems, but especially the upcoming Windows Phone 7's "Games" Hub.
Microsoft contends that Hub, which will heavily leverage the Xbox brand, will help the smartphone platform gain traction with consumers. Given Apple's built-in user base, though, iPads and iPhones with robust gaming capability represent a substantial threat to that initiative.
The iPad's wireless printing also presents something of a challenge to Microsoft, which could have used a continued lack of that feature as a competitive differentiator for its own Windows 7 tablets.
More generally, Apple's extensive refresh of its mobile line, paired with continued strong sales for both the iPhone 4 and the iPad, creates additional headwinds for Microsoft as it seeks to gain share in mobile through its own smartphones and tablets. Jobs claimed some 120 million devices running iOS, with 230,000 new iOS activations per day.
Jobs also unveiled a new version of iTunes, the company's media application, with a social network "all about music" called Ping. That service will leverage iTunes' 160 million registered users, allowing them to share information about their favorite artists, songs and albums. While early news reports seem to focus on Ping's potential effect on streaming-radio services such as Last.fm, the network could also represent something of a beachhead for a future push against Facebook, provided Apple buttresses out its narrow focus.
But much of Apple's presentation seemed devoted to giving Google a minor case of indigestion-particularly the new Apple TV, which fits into the palm of a hand and includes an HDMI connector, Ethernet and WiFi. In conjunction with the hardware, Apple will offer streaming rentals: $4.99 HD movies, the same day they appear on DVD, and 99-cent TV shows. So far, Fox and ABC have signed up to offer their content, although Jobs voiced hope that other studios would follow suit.
"It's never been a huge hit," he said, describing Apple TV. "Neither has any competitive product."
Apple COO Tim Cook once famously referred to Apple TV as the company's "hobby" during a Goldman Sachs technology conference in February, a term that Jobs echoed when introducing the new version of the device. But Google's May announcement of Google TV-which will funnel search, video, Twitter and a number of Web applications through a set-top box-may have driven Apple to take another look at the segment.
Google TV will also reportedly leverage a version of the Google Chrome Web browser and support both Google applications and Google ads; navigation would come courtesy of a special remote control from Logitech or an Android 2.1 or higher smartphone.
Jobs seemed determined to draw contrasts between not only Apple TV and Google's offering, but other companies' attempts to sync multimedia content between multiple screens within a home. "They don't want a computer on their TV," he said. "This is a hard one for people in the computer industry to understand." Features such as syncing between a television and secondary devices, he continued, was "too complicated" for most users.
The notoriously pugilistic CEO appeared to take a backhand swipe at YouTube and its millions of homemade clips. "They want Hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want them," went his description of consumers' wants. "They don't want amateur hour."
Unlike the iOS devices-which already have a large audience-Apple will likely need to push hard for Apple TV's wider adoption; and that effort, more than anything produced by Google, may determine whether the device prospers, dies or remains just a hobby.