Five years hence

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Today marks the iPod's fifth anniversary. As noted elsewhere, the highlights of the diminutive player’s semi-decadinal success include previously unheard of sync speeds, massive music capacity, a drop-dead simple interface, elegant interaction between the iPod and iTunes, and, through the once-named iTunes Music Store, the commercialization of online music acquisition.

Good on ya, Apple. Congratulations all around. But at the risk of putting a damper on the celebration, let me ponder this:

Now what?

While I’m sure Apple's iPod division long ago reserved a massive white board, barricaded behind 17 layers of security, for its five-year plan, I thought that I, as an interested outside observer, might offer some ideas of what I’d like to see happen in the iPod world during the next five years.

The widescreen iPod

I agree with Apple that portable music is always going to be more popular than portable video—if only because you have far more opportunities to absorb music on the go than you do video. But if you’re going to offer an iPod that plays movies, music videos, and television shows, why not issue one that makes that content look as good as possible? The fifth-generation iPod’s 2.5-inch screen is remarkably bright and crisp, but it’s awfully cramped, particularly for viewing movies formatted for widescreen.

Apple is unlikely to make an iPod the size of a PSP—the bulk of such a device simply doesn’t fit with the iPod designers’ keep-it-simple- and -portable philosophy. Therefore the iPod must learn to play horizontally.

The untethered iPod

Steve Jobs takes the stage dressed in a plush blue tuxedo. Before him is the latest iPod model, blasting the Hit of the Day while resting on a sleek black podium. A nattily attired Phil Schiller crosses from stage left, handing Jobs a hula-hoop. Jobs kicks the podium out from beneath the iPod, leaving the media player floating miraculously in mid-air. With a flourish, Jobs passes the hoop over the iPod time and again.

“No wires!” he proclaims.

The audience roars its approval.

Okay, so maybe demanding an anti-gravity iPod is a bit much, but surely, iPods of the future needn’t require cables for listening or syncing.

Stage One is conjuring up an iPod that plays through wireless headphones. Yes, a few manufacturers have offered wireless Bluetooth headphones for the iPod, but, due to poor construction and general discomfort, they’ve hardly been a raging success. This isn’t a solution best left up to third-parties. Apple has the know-how (and access to the iPod’s many internal wonders) to make future iPods broadcast to a roomful of unattached headphones.

Stage Two is severing the umbilical between the iPod and the computer. Bluetooth isn’t fast enough and syncing thousands of tracks (and a few movies) would suck the life out of today’s iPod battery, but Apple’s got five years to work on this one—a faster communications protocol that pulls content from the ether.

Content for the untethered iPod

Speaking of ether, if the iPod needn’t be physically connected to a computer to obtain its content, why not create additional sources for grabbing content? For example, you’re at the airport and want the latest Billboard Chart Topper. Stand within 50 feet of AirMusic Emporium’s iTunes wireless kiosk, click over to your iPod’s Purchase Music screen, browse the store’s catalog, and click again to purchase and download the music you seek.

Closer to the five-year mark, you’re out for a run and the music on your iPod just isn’t cutting it. Back to the Purchase Music screen, select Genre, choose Exercise, and preview cardiovascular-friendly tracks available from the iTunes Store. Press Purchase and your music begins playing as it downloads. Wires? Kiosks? Who needs ’em when every piece of iTunes media is floating in the air around you?

Streaming full content

Cooler than purchasing music anywhere you have an iPod in hand? Listening to any music available at the iTunes Store.

I understand that “subscription"” is a dirty word to many iTunes proponents, but there are very real advantages to playing, on demand, any music you care to. The idea of “owning your music and carrying it with you for the rest of your life” isn’t for everyone. (Honestly, when was the last time you listened to your old Depeche Mode albums?) What’s hip today soon becomes passé and tastes change as you mature. Instead, in addition to pulling up old favorites, why not explore new music without making the commitment to buying it outright and, at the same time, conduct those explorations when and where you want to?

Finding gold

And where to find that new music? Apple (and many others in the media business ) understand that devising a scheme that recommends music based on your current tastes will lead to greater interest in obtaining more music. iTunes’ Just For You feature, a beta option that attempts to make these sorts of recommendations, is a first unsteady step in this direction. Getting it right means more coins in Apple’s pocket and, unlike similar services that are still concerned about paying the month’s rent, that pocket currently has enough gold to see this effort to a happy conclusion.

When this works, include an iPod feature that tunes the iPod into a Just For You stream—a personal “station” of tracks likely to appeal. Some suck? No problem. Select Sucks, press the Center button, and the mother ship rejiggers future selections to take your more-refined tastes into account.

Share the wealth

Social networking is big, big, big, and only getting bigger. Subscription services allow you to share playlists (that play in their entirety) with other subscribers. Microsoft’s Zune will bring wireless tune sharing to the world of portable music players. Sharing a playlist of 30-second previews isn’t going to cut it.

In addition to sharing your iPod’s music with those around you (via the wireless broadcaster I mentioned earlier), full playlist/music sharing will be important. And, again, it will work only if the iTunes Store is open to streaming.

Public persona

Let’s recall that the iPod started out as a $400 5GB MP3 player that didn’t work with Windows PCs, didn’t shuffle, didn’t include an EQ function, and didn’t include the ability to view pictures, notes, contacts, or calendars. In five years we have iPods that offer 16 times the storage capacity of the original, play movies and videos, project videos and slideshows to a TV, play real arcade games, record CD-quality audio, and download pictures from an attached digital camera. And all this without obscuring the iPod’s main mission as a personal media player.

And in those five years the iPod has become the world’s most popular personal media player. In the next five years, I’d like to see the iPod and its descendants move beyond the personal and into the public—as a media player that plays and shares well with others.

This story, "Five years hence" was originally published by PCWorld.

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