Ready or Not?

Steve Jobs once famously said that his life’s goal was to change the world, not just to sell products. But changing the world with technology is a tricky business: yes, you need the engineering know-how to make a product so impressive that it alters people’s lives. But changing the world is not simply a matter of building a better mousetrap. It’s about releasing the right product at exactly the right time.

Timing Is Everything

An obvious example of a good technology arriving at the wrong time is the Newton. A few years after the Newton’s demise, as the battle between the Palm and the Pocket PC heated up, it was clear that the Newton’s technology was excellent—but that its timing stunk.

In contrast, the iPod’s timing was perfect. There were plenty of digital music players out there before the iPod, but they were consistently disappointing. Time and technology advanced, and in late 2001 Apple introduced its small, hard-drive-based player ... and changed the world.

Not long after the iPod arrived on the scene, people began speculating about how Apple would follow it up. Over the past couple of years, the buzz about a video iPod has grown more intense, finally culminating in Apple’s release of an iPod with a color screen in late October.

There’s just one catch. It’s the iPod photo, not the iPod video. And it’s another example of Apple’s excellent timing.

The Rise of the Digital Photo

For years, magazines like Macworld have been promoting digital photography. And in the past few years, the times have caught up with the technology. Digital photography couldn’t be more mainstream. Everyone has a digital camera.

That’s why Apple decided to release the iPod photo —and why we decided to devote this month’s cover story to digital cameras.

By adding a color screen and photo-display capabilities to the iPod, Apple has cleverly combined the two hottest technologies today: digital music and digital photography. I might quibble about some of the iPod photo’s specs (here’s hoping that Apple adds on-the-fly photo albums, direct importing of digital-camera media, and support for direct printing); however, I have no doubt that Apple has made the right call in focusing on photos rather than video.

But when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod photo, he had to explain first what it wasn’t —namely, a video player. Jobs made lots of excuses about why Apple hadn’t done a video player—video players were too big, and the screens weren’t good enough. I don’t buy that—I’m sure that Apple could come up with a perfectly nice iPod-size video player if it wanted to.

The iPod Video Problem

The big problem is something else Jobs mentioned—a complete lack of content to put on such a video player. You can fill your iPod with music downloaded from online music stores or ripped from CDs you own, and anyone with a digital camera has a ready supply of photos. But where do you get videos? You can’t legally download them from the Internet or, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, transfer the contents of a DVD onto your Mac’s hard drive.

I ran into this problem while I played with the Archos Gmini 400, a small iPod-like device with a bright color screen. It’s exactly the sort of product that people have been demanding from Apple. But getting video onto it was next to impossible. Even when I had downloaded the software to illegally extract video files from my DVDs, or downloaded TV shows from underground file-sharing sites, it was nearly impossible to encode them into a video format supported by the Gmini. When I finally got it to work, it took me hours to encode one 30-minute TV show. No thanks. (And no, selling a video player and telling the people who bought it to go find video files illegally on the Internet is not an acceptable option.)

There will be a right time for handheld video players. But Apple has made the right call: that time isn’t here yet. Until a company with credibility in both the technology and entertainment industries can get movie studios and TV networks to try the equivalent of the iTunes Music Store for video, there’s no point in creating a video iPod.

What company will finally break through and make video downloads popular? There’s no way to know, but with its iPod success and Steve Jobs’s Hollywood ties, I sure wouldn’t bet against Apple. But only when the time is right.

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