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It never fails. Every time you think Apple is going to zig, the company zags instead. On September 7, everyone in the world was expecting Apple to announce a cellular phone that worked with iTunes. And that’s what we got. But we also got something much more momentous—the bold replacement of the hugely popular iPod mini with the groundbreaking new iPod nano.

Not standing still

Apple is most definitely not playing defense. Even though the iPod is by far the most popular digital music player on the planet, the company knows that dozens of competitors are trying to knock it off its throne. If Apple had kept the iPod mini in its product line for this year’s holiday season, would it have sold a zillion of them? Undoubtedly. But at the same time, its competitors would have crept a little bit closer. Would they have crept close enough to seriously threaten the iPod mini’s rule? Not in 2005, certainly. But eventually, yes.

That’s why Apple has adopted a philosophy of many successful sports teams: Better to make a change one year too early than one year too late. So the iPod mini—even though it was still a winner—had to go.

Inventing nanotechnology

For me, the most impressive thing about the iPod nano is that it’s undeniably an iPod. It has the same design as the full-size model, with a Click Wheel, a color screen, and the ability to display photos. The biggest differences between the nano and the full-size iPods are storage space and size.

The iPod nano isn’t nearly as good a per-gigabyte value as the full-size iPods. But the iPod mini was also introduced at $249 for 4GB of storage, and that didn’t stop it from becoming a huge hit.

I don’t think this value issue will hurt the nano: Many people don’t need to carry tens of thousands of songs with them—for many potential iPod buyers, the size of the iPod is more important than the price. And if price is truly a concern, buyers can opt for the 2GB model. (For a helpful guide to picking the iPod that’s right for you, see our November installment of Playlist .)

To me, the most appealing thing about the iPod nano is its size. Even if you can’t remember the days when 10MB of hard-drive space was more than many of us thought we’d ever need, you’ve got to be amazed to find several gigabytes of data on a chip that’s the size of your thumbnail. It’s hard to grasp just how small the iPod nano is until you, well, grasp one. The nano is very close to being small enough to fit it in your wallet.

Like many people, I keep my entire music library on my iPod, so I won’t be switching to a nano as my primary iPod in the foreseeable future. But I’m excited about the nano (although I’m not as thrilled about the silly name) because it’s a great bridge between the iPod shuffle and the full-size iPod. Now people who want a tiny, shock-proof iPod can get one with a screen. I can’t wait to get mine.

The future of the iPod

Meanwhile, with the introduction of Motorola’s iTunes-equipped Rokr cell phone, Apple is poised to become a major player in the cell-phone market. While many of us prefer to keep our iPods and our phones separate, some people will welcome the chance to reduce the number of digital devices they have to carry around. The Rokr is primitive by iPod standards, but it’s just a start. With any luck, Apple is already working on the next generation of iTunes-embedded phones, devices that will blur the line between iPod and phone even more.

With the introduction of the iPod nano and the Rokr, the future of the iPod product line is becoming clearer. As flash-memory technology improves, large, hard-drive-driven iPods will fall by the wayside—at least as far as music is concerned. But I don’t think the full-size iPods will wither and die. Instead, they will move on to the next frontier of portable media: video, a format with large data files that will require a hard drive for a long time. And there’s still an opportunity for full-size iPods to add networking, which could add lots of cool features.

And that, I think, is one of my favorite things about Apple’s latest announcements: Just when we—and Apple’s competitors—thought we knew where the company was headed, Jobs and Company surprised us with the nano. Once again, anything seems possible. Apple-branded iPhone? Video iPod? Stay tuned.

Are you going to buy an iPod nano or a Rokr phone? Has the iPod revolution left you behind? Share your thoughts about this topic or anything else in the Macworld Forums, or e-mail me at jason_snell@macworld.com.

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