What iPods May Come
In the world of Apple, September is the season of new iPods. It's become a tradition over the last few years, and it's interesting to look at how the line has changed, grown and evolved over time. What used to be a relatively low-memory, high-priced white block has turned into a line of sleek devices of all sizes that do a lot more than just play music. What's next for iPod?
08/31/10 5:00 AM PT
Apple first introduced its iconic white iPod in the fall of 2001, then gave it the technology buddy it needed -- the iTunes store -- in the spring of 2003, which was when I bought my first iPod. It was heavy, a third-generation unit with a built-in spinning hard drive and four buttons across the middle, and it irrevocably changed the way I consumed and listened to music. Instead of buying just a handful of choice CDs each year, I bought more songs from more artists, and I was a far happier consumer.
That's right -- Apple gave me tools to help me enjoy music more than ever. And each year, Apple's been adding to its music foundation. In more recent history, the key music month has settled down to September.
Apple will hold a big media event on Wednesday, in which case the watching world will find out what Apple has been hiding -- a new iPod touch with front and back cameras, capable of FaceTiming with iPhones?
How about a new touch-based iPod nano? A new way to consume music via iTunes? A new Apple TV, which isn't all about the music, but may be close enough to media consumption to work for Apple in September?
Let's Step Back Through Septembers
Hurtling back through time, let's see what Apple announced at similar media events in September.
In September 2004, Apple hadn't yet slipped into its now familiar September announcement schedule -- all we got was a couple of new Jam Packs for GarageBand and an iTunes affiliate program that let certain website partners earn commissions for driving iTunes songs sales.
But come late October, Apple introduced the iPod Photo, which let consumers store up to 25,000 digital photos next to a tiny library of songs -- or some other more reasonable pairing of photos and playlists. And the price: A 40 GB iPod Photo cost US$499.
Apple fans had a big September five years ago: Apple introduced the iPad nano, giving consumers a 2GB model for $199, and then rolled out iTunes 5 with a new search bar and playlist management. At the same time, remember Harry Potter? Apple snagged the rights to the little wizard's digital audio books. At that time, Apple was also tooting how more than 1,000 accessories were available for its iPod line, not-so-subtly pointing out to the industry that it iPod ecosystem was growing fast.
Most importantly, Apple teamed up with Motorola to deliver the abysmal Motorola ROKR cellphone with built-in iTunes features. The phone sucked. Sure, it could boast blinking neon-like colors emanating from the inside, but anyone who had ever used an iPod was surely disappointed in the lousy design and poor integration. I bought one, and I tried to love it, but I was just jealous of all the svelte RAZRs I saw. I was packing my iPod with me anyway, so a thin cellphone seemed like a damn good idea.
In 2006, Apple announced iTunes 7, a new iPad nano, a new iPod shuffle, a new iPod, and NFL highlights on the iTunes Store.
iTunes 7 brought us Cover Flow viewing for music, TV shows and movies, and a smattering of movies available to buy the same day they were released on DVD. The new nano showed us Apple's coming penchant for aluminum unibody design, plus a new bright palette of silver, pink, green, blue, and black. The iPod shuffle got a "wearable" clip design, while the iPod got a more vibrant 2.5-inch color screen. Football fans got iTunes video downloads of highlights from NFL games the day after they were played -- for $1.99.
In this groundbreaking year for touchscreens, Apple introduced the iPod touch with built-in WiFi, a video-playing iPod nano, a 160 GB iPod classic, a WiFi-capable iTunes Store app for buying music directly from the iPhone and iPod touch, and a deal with Starbucks to let iPod touch and iPhone customers use Starbucks WiFi.
In this same month, Apple also dropped the price of its iPhone by $200, sparking early-adopter consumer outrage.
Just a couple of years ago, Apple again refined the iPod nano, this time offering a sleek new curved aluminum and glass design, along with a new Genius playlist-creating brain to pair with iTunes 8.
Apple gave us a second-generation iPod touch, which was lighter and sleeker, and NBC Universal returned to the iTunes Store with hit TV shows like "Heroes," "The Office," and "30 Rock." Meanwhile, App Store downloads broke 100 million.
iTunes 9 hits, with iTunes LP, which was supposed to rock the world by "delivering a rich, immersive experience for select albums on the iTunes Store by combining beautiful design with expanded visual features like live performance videos, lyrics, artwork, liner notes, interviews, photos, album credits and more." It was designed to be the next evolution of the music album.
Moving on, the iPod nano gained a video camera, while the iPod touch settled for minor refinements, minus any sort of camera. Apple's teeny little shuffle slipped to $59.
Cut to the Future
So what might we really expect from tomorrow's media event?
A new iPad nano seems like a given. Beyond a still camera in addition to the video camera, what could Apple possible do to the diminutive player? Turn it into a touchscreen device seems likely, especially when you consider the two-sided glass design of the iPhone. And it doesn't hurt that some rumor sites have found what appears to be square little screen protectors and a rubber case from manufacturers in Asia.
As for the iPod touch, how can Apple get away with another year without a camera? It can't. A new iPod touch will feature a camera, probably front and back so that consumers can use Apple's cool FaceTime video conferencing app.
There's a decent chance Apple will offer a new subscription service, possibly a streaming music service, and possibly new pricing for TV episode rentals or downloads. A new iTunes will likely deliver the new service, but what it is, exactly, is perhaps the biggest secret -- Apple is no doubt tied to industry distribution contracts, which hampers its ability to let its imagination run wild.
Last of all, as the world of music converges with all things media, Apple might be able to pair a fall TV viewing season with a new Apple TV ... and maybe even an Apple TV that runs its mobile iOS operating system.
In just another day, we'll know for sure.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.