AirTunes: Where Does Apple Go Next?

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For an innovative company that always seems to be creating the future's technology today, Apple is very focused on the present. Talk to an Apple representative about where the company is headed in the future, and they won't say a word. That's because Apple likes to make a big splash with surprising new products -- like, say, AirPort Express -- and doesn't want to spoil things by talking up forthcoming technologies before they're ready to be rolled out in a marketing blitz.

Which is why, during my conversation with Apple Vice President of Hardware Product Marketing Greg Joswiak yesterday, I was surprised with just how casual and open he was about AirTunes and where it might be headed. When I suggested that AirPort Express wouldn't fulfill a certain group of users' needs because you've got to use iTunes to control it rather than a hand-held remote, he didn't dispute that. In fact, he seemed to suggest that a remote control might indeed be a logical direction -- but that Apple wanted to get this first product out the door, to get the ball rolling.

Judging from the discussion among the members of the Macworld Forums in the past day, there's still plenty of room for growth and innovation when it comes to creating consumer digital-music products. Some people don't get why anyone would want AirTunes, since you could just plug in your iPod to your stereo and get the same results. Others don't get why anyone would want AirTunes because it requires that you tote a PowerBook around as a gigantic remote control.

Both are right in a sense: for some people, sticking your iPod in a dock and using it to play through your stereo makes a lot of sense. For others, having a device like the Squeezebox that has its own display and infrared remote control is a must. Still others want a TV-driven interface like TiVo's Home Media Option.

But while all that is true, that doesn't mean that there isn't also a huge audience for whom AirTunes fits perfectly. These are people who want to easily get all the music they ripped into iTunes and slapped onto their iPods to play halfway across their house, without toting around their iPod or plugging in a laptop. The AirPort Express is going to encourage them to play their digital music library in places they might never have played it before -- and that's a good thing.

Where does Apple go from here? The sky's the limit. And I'm sure that numerous developers are already scrambling to fill the needs that Apple doesn't address. A remote control for pausing, skipping tracks, and the like is a must. A display that shows what's currently playing and what's up next would be awfully nice.

Of course, when I really dug into the details of AirPort Express, the first thing I thought of was a handheld, iPod-like remote control that let you choose playlists, browse albums, and the rest -- basically letting you do everything you could from iTunes, without having to walk over to a computer and pick up a mouse. At which point I had to ask myself: why not just stick AirPort inside the iPod and let iPods stream their music directly to AirPort Express-driven speakers? What better iPod-like remote control could there be?

Now, it may be a while before something like that happens. I do believe that, eventually, iPods will have either AirPort or Bluetooth (or both) built in -- it makes too much sense, since it will allow music sharing and easy library syncing. But since the iPod battery only holds so much juice, going completely wireless with one doesn't seem to be in the cards for now.

What features would you like to see in future digital-music devices, from Apple or other companies? What's the next step you'd like Apple to take in the music-playback arena? Add a comment to the forum thread that goes with this entry and share your views.

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