What’s at stake for Apple at Tuesday’s iPod event

There was an interesting undercurrent to the reader chatter surrounding Apple’s announcement of a special, presumably iPod-themed event for this coming Tuesday. Normally, the news that Apple’s planning to unveil something inspires speculation, wishcasting, and open covetousness from the folks who hang on ever word to come out of Cupertino—and to be certain, there was plenty of that in the Macworld.com forum thread on Apple’s September 9 event. But there was another recurring theme to some of the comments posted in that thread—an attitude one doesn’t normally see from Apple’s customers in advance of one of the company’s media events.

Wariness.

“I used to be excited about these, but not anymore,” one forum member wrote in the very first post in the September 9 event thread. “I must admit the shine is off for me as well,” another forum member agreed just a few posts later

I don’t agree with that point of view—until the day Gil Amelio returns to wow us all with another three-hour keynote, Apple product unveilings are, by their very nature exciting—but I can certainly understand it. Apple is coming off a summer marked by several high-profile product launches—and nearly as many exasperating missteps.

In July, Apple released the iPhone 3G, a new version of its mobile phone that improved on the original in many ways—when it works as advertised, at least. Some customers have reported problems with dropped calls, a problem widespread enough for Apple to release a software update specifically aimed at fixing the issue. July also saw the launch of the App Store and thousands of cleverly designed programs that extend the capabilities of the iPhone. The trouble is, Apple still has to work out a few kinks in the approval process—updates to apps don’t appear in a timely fashion and sometimes programs disappear from the App Store with little rhyme or reason. Then, there was the MobileMe transition, which was marked by syncing snags, log-in woes, and mail foul-ups. (To its credit, Apple respond to the MobileMe miscues by extending subscriptions to the online service—not just once, but twice.)

The upshot: Apple delivered a number of significant products this summer. But the launch schedule was so compressed—a mistake Steve Jobs acknowledged to his employees—that the pros of these new offerings were overshadowed by the assorted missteps. More important, the assorted glitches have left a segment of Apple’s customer base feeling a little put out heading into the fall.

Which brings us to Tuesday’s scheduled product launch event. Apple has turned these September press conferences into a staple of the onset of fall—baseball pennant races entering the home stretch, leaves turning colors, new iPods arriving on retail shelves. It’s gotten so that Apple executives could throw one of these September shindigs standing on their collective heads. And yet, because of how things went down this summer, Apple goes into this event on Tuesday facing some unaccustomed expectations.

Those expectations, by the way, have nothing to do with coming out with a ground-breaking or evolutionary new take on the iPod. Cnet’s Don Reisinger wrote a piece this week dismissing the chances of anything exciting coming out of Tuesday’s event—”An iPod event may have a few big announcements that will make some swoon,” he wrote, “but by and large, it’s nothing more than another run-of-the-mill day at the Apple office”—which, really, seems to miss the point by several dozen zip codes. Apple doesn’t need to take the wraps off some breath-taking new music player on Tuesday. What it does need to do, especially after the Summer of Discontent, is announce something that—whatever it turns out be—ships when it’s expected to and works like advertised.

Unveiling new iPods? Make sure they measure up to the quality and performance that iPod enthusiast have come to expect. Rejiggering iTunes? That update had best be free of any major bugs or blemishes. Launching a subscription-based version of the iTunes Store’s music offerings? Then that launch needs to be the polar opposite of MobileMe’s summer debut.

Right now, fairly or unfairly, Apple’s narrative has shifted from The Company That Can Do No Wrong to The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. A smooth launch of a solid if not overly spectacular product stops that. And maybe it restores some of the excitement about the company among customers eyeing this Tuesday’s event with unaccustomed wariness.

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