PC World: Random iPod thoughts

Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from the PC World’s TechLog at PCWorld.com.

Whenever I attend an Apple product launch, I know the drill: By the end of the day, I’ll have a head full of random thoughts and questions regarding the stuff that was unveiled.

First, though, a few plugs for other iPod-related content on PC World—all of it courtesy of Melissa Perenson, our senior products editor. Here's Melissa’s video report on the new ’Pods. Here’s a slideshow she put together. And here are her thoughts on last week’s news.

Now for my iPod-related brain dump:

They really are beautiful. You won’t see this until you see the new iPod lineup in person, but the industrial design is probably the best that Apple or anyone else in consumer electronics has ever done—they just look great. Especially the Nano: The change in dimensions not only accommodates the larger screen, but somehow makes the player positively endearing. Funny but true: There’s one model called the iPod touch, but the metal finishes on the classic and nano are the ones that make those two players feel as good as they look.

I’m reserving judgment on the new user interface. I’ve always liked the streamlined minimalism of the iPod UI. The new one as seen on the nano and classic is a departure, with a fair amount of graphical frippery—like cover art floating behind menus--that serves no great purpose. I'm not saying it's a mistake, but I'd want to live with it awhile before declaring it an improvement on the old one.

Bye Bye, classic? Finally, the iPod that we think of when we think of iPods has a name—it’s the Classic. That doesn’t seem like a name you’d give a product you expected to sell forever—Coca-Cola Classic notwithstanding. I kinda wonder if Apple now thinks of the touch as the flagship iPod, and if it won’t be long until the classic gives way to a touch with a big honkin’ hard drive or, conceivably, a ton of flash RAM.

A hundred and sixty gigs! For now, though, the high-end classic’s 160GB of space is pretty darn startling. (Normally at Apple events, I feel like I’m surrounded by people who’ll ooh and aah at the most mundane of spec bumps; when Jobs unleashed this one, I was oohing and aahing with the best of ’em.) I wonder how many people will buy this model, and what percentage of them will immediately fill up them up?

Rotating storage lives! The 160GB classic certainly shows there’s still a place for hard disks inside iPods—if Apple were to put 160GB of flash storage inside an iPod, it would have to charge several thousand dollars for it. I suspect, though, that by fall 2008, most iPods will be solid-state, with one or two disk-based models left in the lineup.

Will the touch succeed? Until now, there’s been a logical progression of iPod models, from small, low-capacity, and cheap (shuffle) to big, high-capacity, and relatively pricey (full-sized iPod). The touch ends that clarity by being large, low-capacity, and relatively pricey. Will people spend $399 for an iPod that won’t hold all their music? I’m not sure.

Is the touch really a computer? I think Apple’s being pretty savvy selling it as a media player and downplaying the fact it contains Safari—which means it can do just about anything you can do on the Web. (I’m thinking of the fact that devices like Sony’s Mylo, which are in some ways similar to the Touch but sold on the strength of their computing and communications features, never seem to go anywhere.) However it’s marketed, the touch is the first phone-less iPod that can do a heckuva lot of things that have nothing to do with enjoying entertainment, and you gotta think that Apple is quietly but intentionally expanding the iPod’s mission with this device.

What, no multi-touch iPod I can put all my music on? The most important product Apple didn’t announce today—and the iPod I and a lot of other people want—is a model equipped with a big touchscreen and at least 80GB of storage apace. I’m not entirely sure why one didn’t show up—maybe it’s hard to make one as thin as Mr. Jobs likes his music players—but it seems a safe bet that we&38217;ll get one within the next year, if not a lot sooner.

Will anyone turn the touch into a Wi-Fi VoIP iPhone? Technically, it’s probably doable without a huge amount of effort—you can make Skype calls on an iPhone, and there are plug-in microphones for other iPods. I’m sure someone will try, but I can’t figure out whether Apple will consider it a laudable use of its device or a nefarious threat to iPhone sales.

When will we be able to download video on an iPod? The iTunes store you can get to from the Touch and iPhone is the iTunes Music Store. Movies and TV would eat up a lot more Wi-Fi bandwidth, but we’ll presumably see them at some point.

Why no music sharing a la the Zune? iPod touches (or is that iPods touch?) apparently can’t use their Wi-Fi connections to talk to each other. I’ll bet Apple would never introduce a sharing feature as ridden by DRM-related gotchas as the Zune’s “squirting,” but I’m still curious whether it’s trying to figure out a way to make sharing make sense.

Starbucks’ cup runneth over. I’m not a great audience for an extended discussion of the Wonders of Starbucks—I drink maybe one cup of coffee every two years—but I’ll bet I’m not the only person in the audience who thought that Chairman Howard Schultz’s presentation was interminable. (Especially given that Mr. Jobs himself kinda rushed through some pretty interesting stuff, like the new iPod user interface.) On the bright side, Schultz was a polished enough presenter to hold his own during a Jobs keynote, which you can’t say about most of the other execs who manage to get on stage at these events—cue flashback to the debut of Motorola’s Rokr phone.)

What’s really behind the Starbucks-Apple partnership? The coffee kingpins are going to spend years—and, presumably, millions and millions of dollars—setting up the technology they need to let customers spend 99 cents to download the song they’re listening to. You gotta think that there’s a master strategy behind it all that’s not apparent yet. (More than one person I talked to wondered why you won’t be able to use an iPod to pay for your latte: Maybe you will someday.)

No John, No Paul, No George, No Ringo. This was approximately the 6,172nd Apple event preceded by pundits confidently predicting it would involve the announcement that Beatles music would be available for download. Jobs seemed to taunt us, even—his demos involved both solo Lennon and solo McCartney at various points. I was willing to believe that Paul was waiting in the wings at the Moscone Center up to the moment that Jobs bid us all farewell. But the iTunes Store remains Fab Fourless.

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