Socks, Photos, and Rock ’n’ Roll

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Last week, I received an e-mail that read “Steve Jobs, Bono and The Edge invite you to attend a special event.” (Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton were indifferent about my attendance, I guess.) And as I was stuck in traffic this morning on the way to San Jose, I was wondering just what Steve might unleash. I'd heard the rumors—mainly, a color iPod that plays video, or a black iPod with U2’s new album loaded on it—and as with most Mac rumors, it turned out both were close to what actually happened.

Once I took a seat with a few hundred other press and guests in an old movie theater in downtown San Jose, Jobs talked about the Apple Stores, the iTunes Music Store, and then quickly moved on to the iPod. He showed a picture of Creative’s Zen Portable Media Center as an example of what other companies are adding to digital music players—video. He then showed a clip from the film Raiders of the Lost Ark —you know, the scene where Harrison Ford and John Rhys-Davies are excited to find that the Nazis are “digging in the wrong place” for the Ark of the Covenant. Jobs’ point was that, like the sinister-if-bumbling villains in Raiders , these other companies are making a mistake, mostly because there isn’t any content available for video players (unlike music for the iPod and competing devices). Apple concluded that photos were the way to go—everyone has plenty of those, and there are no problem with rights and ownership (also unlike music).

The iPod Photo unveiled by Jobs Tuesday looked just like the fourth-generation iPod, but with one big difference—a color screen. The tiny photo viewer displays 25 thumbnails or one photo at a time; just as you sync with the songs in your iTunes library, you can sync the pictures in your iPhoto library. You can also hook up the iPod Photo to a TV or projector (anything with analog video inputs) for a much larger viewing experience.

And that᾿s good. Because after the event, I got to try out the new iPod Photo, and having seen it up close, I have to say I can’t see the point in having a tiny photo viewer built into the iPod. The color screen is beautiful (and it displays the cover art embedded in each track purchased from the iTunes Music Store), but who wants to stand around an iPod looking at pictures? Maybe once I have more time to reflect on things, I’ll change my mind. But right now? That’s a very small screen.

Apple’s other announcement Tuesday had something to do with its special guests, 50 percent of U2. Why was half the band in the house? For the iPod U2 Special Edition, of course. As predicted, it is has a black face, and even a red Click Wheel. Alas, no music comes preinstalled, as had been rumored (although the signatures of all four band members come laser-engraved on the back).

The other difference you’ll notice with the iPod U2 Special Edition is the price—it costs $50 more than the standard 20GB Click Wheel iPod. I can’t say I'm a big fan of the color scheme or the additional price, but then again, I’m not a huge U2 fan (and Special Edition makes me think of the horrible things George Lucas has done to the Star Wars Trilogy).

The other U2-related item on the Apple menu was the world’s first digital box set. For $149, you get every U2 album plus a bunch of rare and unreleased tracks (and if you buy the U2 iPod, you get an iTunes Music Store coupon for $50 off the box set, meaning your iPod really costs the same $299 you’d pay for a non-Special Edition one). Bono and The Edge were nice enough to play two songs for us, with the lead singer more or less apologizing for his ’80s mullet—so I was pretty satisfied.

There was a very odd moment Tuesday where Steve Jobs introduced a new product called Socks—a set of 5 different-colored cotton... well... socks . They’re supposed to protect your iPod from scratches and “keep it warm”—assuming you accept the chilling idea that your iPod is capable of sentient thought. Since I see no mention of the socks on Apple’s site, I’m still not convinced Jobs isn’t pulling our leg. Still, the CEO did say the socks will be available mid-November (the same release date for the U2 iPod) for $29. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Apple is truly planning to deliver the latest in iPod-themed footwear.

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