Whats Missing From the iPod?

As the Macworld CreativePro Expo arrives in the Big Apple, Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin details the glory as well as some gotchas in Apple's iPod and music strategy.

Will this weeks Macworld CreativePro Conference and Expo herald an update to Apples success with the iPod and the Apple Music Store? Along with iTunes, they compose the tune triumvirate that should represent an important new revenue source for the company. The combo also constitutes what for the moment is likely the worlds largest digital music marketplace—outside of mobile phone ringtones—thanks to the contract terms that Apple negotiated with the five major record labels.

The skill of Apples engineers and designers may be rivaled only by its business development and legal teams that sealed a seemingly unattainable deal. The iPod, to which Apple Music Store customers can transfer purchased songs an unlimited number of times, is now much more than a music player (beyond that it can play a fine game of Breakout). Its the little white lynchpin in Apples strategy to capitalize on digital media and the first non-Macintosh product that Apple has bet big on since the Newton.

At its introduction, the original iPod easily outshone its main competition, Creative Technologys Nomad Jukebox, despite the latters higher capacity. Apple solved the abysmal battery life problem that plagued the Nomad through a clever mix of superior battery technology, power conservation, and a large memory cache. The company let users cram a thousand songs into what Apple VP Greg Joswiak described to me as something the size of a deck of cards.

"Looks more like the size of a pack of cigarettes to me," I said.

"We prefer deck of cards," he said, apparently eager to escape the nicotine association.

Having used the third-generation iPod (which has indeed reached deck size) for a few weeks, I can attest that outside of its owners smudging fingers, nothing touches the iPod. Thats hardly surprising as Ive yet to see any competitor seriously challenge even the previous generation of the portable music player.

Apple pulled out the stops in shrinking the already diminutive iPod to something that is now shockingly small and light. With such success in slimming down, its no wonder that Oprah admires it so.

Shoot to Frill

However, in daily use, many of Apples other improvements—the button redesign, the clock, the games, and playlists-on-the-go— have quickly became novelties. Call me a child of the Walkman generation, but I generally use the iPod hands-free. Even with the its fast navigation, the thousands of songs the iPod stores discourages excessive browsing. Rather, as many have observed, listening to a loaded iPod is more akin to having your own commercial-free radio station tucked away in your pocket or on your belt. If youre really picky about specifying the songs you want to hear, the best bet is still to set up playlists in iTunes.

Speaking of which, Playlist-on-the-go is a welcome catch-up feature, but Apple should do more here, such as letting you delete songs on the fly. In addition, a history screen could let you refresh your memory as to who sang a certain song when youre on the road or aid in navigation the way it does in a browser.

Apple has long bragged about the quality of its ear buds, but even the smaller ones hurt my ears; I use a pair of Sonys MDR-EX70SL "Nude Ex" in-ear ear buds (a newer version of which is now available in iPod white) and audiophiles may opt for the likes of the $139 Etymotic Researchs ER-6. Also, I preferred the Xtreme Accessoriess iPod cases to the one Apple supplied with the original iPod, but the company has not yet released cases for the new batch. Im sure its only a matter of time before some enterprising third-party developer releases some nice, matching amplified desk speakers.

The minimalist aesthetic of Apples wired remote may be the greatest victory of form over function at Apple since the original iMacs "hockey puck" mouse. Just as the first iPod cried out for a wired remote, its time for the next generation to adopt one with a display like so many other MP3 players. One challenge here may be finding something with higher bitmap resolution than the character-mode displays commonly used.

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