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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Needs a Tooth, Leads
On the plus side, not enough attention has been given to Advanced Audio Codec (AAC), Dolbys rival codec to Windows Media Audio (WMA). While most digital music is still encoded in MP3, which brings advantages especially if you want to stream it around your house or burn an MP3 CD, codecs like WMA and AAC appease record labels by enabling digital rights management. For consumers, the formats offer similar audio quality at smaller file sizes. In effect, the new 10GB iPod can hold twice as many songs as the last 10GB iPod with no loss in playback quality.
At the same time, it would have been great to see Apple introduce Bluetooth into the iPod family, further tightening the bond with PowerBooks. The iPod is one the few devices on the market that can take great advantage of Bluetooth even without widespread cell phone support.
Of course, Bluetooth would be a poor choice for transferring the devices gigabytes of music and owners are better served by FireWire or USB 2.0 (a welcome addition for Windows users). But Bluetooth would be a convenient transport for the various types of personal data now stored on an iPod. Bluetooth could also be used for transmitting track information that populates the sidebar lists of bloggers; turning a Bluetooth handset into a wireless remote; or supporting future versions of digital rights management schemes to lend a song wirelessly to a friend for a limited number of playbacks.
I may be a little ahead of the curve here, but how slick would it be to replace those ear buds with Bluetooth headphones or to stream music to the nearest Macintosh like an FM transmitter on steroids? The current state of iTunes streaming is nifty, but the growing ranks of wireless media receivers that bridge the PC and consumer electronics worlds demonstrate the demand for closer ties to the home theater.
In previous columns, Ive hailed the iPod as one of the most significant tech products of the past five years, but the new version has helped to convince me that the iPod has had even more of an impact (and higher sales) than TiVo. In time, the two may mate.
For now, while TiVo may be a more innovative idea, there are only so many hours per day that most people can watch television. In contrast, the iPod can deliver entertainment almost anytime and anywhere. As it becomes more affordable, its poised to deliver the soundtrack of the digital lifestyle.
Has the new iPod reached perfection or do you still have a wish list for your playlists? E-mail me.
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