Post Game Wrap-Up: U2 Apple Event

I was fortunate enough to attend today’s Apple music event in San Jose. It went a little something like this:

There was the expected gathering of the usual suspects in the lobby prior to the event — journalists, a few music industry folks, Apple employees, some developers, and people who earn these kinds of invites for god knows what reason. The audience was a bit more limited than in other iPod events I’ve attended — perhaps 750 people versus the 1,000+ who appeared for the fourth-generation iPod unveiling.

And as usual, the crowd was buzzing with rumors. Was a U2 iPod the real deal? How about a 60GB iPod? Anything resembling a flash-based iPod on the low end?

To underscore the U2ewy nature of the event, the band’s music played prior to Steve Jobs’ entrance. And just before that entrance, the new U2 iPod commercial played on the theatre’s large screen.

Jobs entered looking spry and healthy in his trademark jeans and black shirt, though he appeared to be slightly thinner than the last time I saw him speak. Typical of a Macworld Expo appearance, he began the show by running the reviews and numbers — quoting accolades for the new iMac G5, talking up the retail stores, which saw 24 million visitors last year; and citing figures that clearly demonstrated the iPod and iTunes’ dominance in the digital music market.

Big announcement one was today’s opening of the Euro iTunes Music Store, available to residents of Austria, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain (it’s unclear whether Vatican City made the cut). And in a “well, it’s about damned time” moment, Jobs announced that a Canadian iTunes Music Store would open in November.

Moving to the subject of the iPod, Jobs cited figures released earlier this month — 2 million iPods sold in the last quarter and the iPod accounting for 65 percent market share of all MP3 players and 92 percent of all hard drive-based players.

Little-but-amusing-announcement one was iPod Socks, a $29 collection of six colorful “iPod warmers” that hold your little digital music buddy. This was greeted with laughter and then a significant buzz of “He’s kidding, right?” But apparently, though the things aren’t yet listed at the Apple Store, they’re a real product that will ship in mid-November.

My impression: They’re cute as hell but offer no protection or access to the front controls of the iPod. So, not useful but a great — if you’ll excuse the expression — holiday stocking stuffer.

Jobs then went on to squelch any speculation of a video iPod. He considers such portable video devices to be too big, too heavy, and lacking available content. “Video,” he suggested, “is the wrong place” for the iPod.

Photos, on the other hand, make sense to Apple and thus Jobs revealed the Photo iPod, a player that looks exactly like a fourth-generation white iPod save for its color display. Offered in two configurations — the $499 40GB model and the $599 60GB model — the device swaps pictures with the Mac via Apple’s iPhoto and deals with Windows picture files from Photoshop Elements or Adobe Album. The iPod can also pull pictures from any folder you designate on your Mac or PC It does not, however, offer a direct connection between a digital camera and the iPod -- a feature many have longed for.

Included with the Photo iPod is the iPod Photo dock that features the usual data/power connector, an audio out port, and an S-Video port for connecting the iPod to a TV (though I suppose you could also connect it to your camcorder’s S-Video port and record the slideshows the iPod plays). Apple also includes a composite video cable that plugs into the headphone jack of the iPod (a jack similar to the video jack on the iBook). Unlike other iPods, this one comes with a carrying case. No word on whether it’s Apple’s far-too-easily-broken iPod case.

Although Jobs claimed the Photo iPod is available today, he failed to mention that it's available only to order today. No Apple Store I checked with has one in stock and they don’t expect them until the second week of November. Likewise, Photo iPods ordered from the online Apple Store won’t ship for one to two weeks.

If I may skip ahead, I had a chance to handle a Photo iPod after the presentation and it was okay. The color screen is nice and bright, the thumbnail view isn’t terribly detailed but gives you a good idea of what you’re looking at so you can navigate to the picture you want, and the full-screen display of pictures is crisp enough to give grandma a good idea of what the latest addition to the family looks like. I certainly wouldn’t care to show my vacation pictures to my nearest and dearest on this iPod’s 2-inch screen, but for such occasions I can always put the device’s video out to good use.

Apple claims the iPod holds a charge of 15 hours when playing music uninterrupted and can play up to 5 hours when displaying slides continuously. Unlike other iPods, the color display on the Photo iPod demands that backlighting be on. With that in mind, the iPod’s display dims down when you haven’t mucked with the controls for awhile (the dim down time is adjusted in the Backlighting screen). Given that backlighting eats up a battery charge in a hurry, I can only assume that Apple got those battery charge figures from an iPod with a dimmed display.

Other features of note?

As you might expect from a device with a color screen, the Photo iPod lacks a contrast feature.

The games and calendar are in color — a big improvement for both.

This iPod takes an hour longer to charge than other iPods (5 hours versus 4) and offers 17 minutes of skip protection versus the 25 minutes touted for other iPods.

The price: The idea of a $600 iPod is a bit daunting but I’ve learned from hard-won experience to avoid questioning Apple’s iPod prices. (I’m the guy who thought the original 5GB iPod and the iPod mini were outrageously expensive and they sold like particularly toothsome hotcakes. These may too.)

The U2 portion of the show came next with Jobs announcing the anticipated iPod Special Edition: U2. For the most part, it lived up to the rumors. As expected, it’s black (though I don’t recall anyone suggesting that it would bear its red click wheel). Though some had suggested that it would be bundled with a goodly portion of U2’s catalog, this is not the case. Instead, the $349, 20GB iPod comes with a special U2 poster and a $50-off-the-purchase-of-every-damned-U2-tune gift certificate. This certificate is tied to an exclusive $149 download of over 400 U2 songs from the iTunes Music Store (including the upcoming album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). Use this certificate and you get the complete U2 catalog plus over 25 rare and unreleased tracks for $99.

I have no idea if the naming scheme is significant — iPod Special Edition: U2 — but perhaps it hints that other special editions may appear one day. Although Apple was badly bitten by an iMac’s “Flower Power” color scheme, a flowery iPod might make sense should Apple and the Beatles ever come to an agreement.

U2’s Bono and The Edge then came out to praise Apple’s digital music efforts with The Edge suggesting that “Music companies couldn’t have done it” and Bono saying that the iPod was the most interesting art object since the electric guitar. The duo played two songs from the upcoming album — “Original of the Species” (with The Edge playing a digitally delayed piano) and “All Because of You.”

Jobs stood just off-stage and gently rocked out.

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