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Apple Adds Muscle to iPods, Brains to iTunes

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 9, 2008 3:23 PM PT

In a music-focused announcement, Apple announced the highly anticipated next generation of its iPod nano, a beefier iPod touch, iTunes 8, a new Genius feature that will create complementary playlists, the return of NBC to iTunes, HD television shows, the delivery of iPhone 2.1 software, and -- as if that weren't enough -- Apple bragged about being the largest music distributor and delivering 100 million application downloads via the App Store.

Apple Adds Muscle to iPods, Brains to iTunes

Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivered most of the news in a special event for the media Tuesday in San Francisco, rolling out the latest iTunes stats -- 8.5 million songs, 125,000 podcasts, 30,000 TV episodes, 2,500 movies, and 3,000 apps for the iPhone and iPod touch. With its 65 million customers, Jobs said, Apple is the largest music distributor in any format.

The New iPods

Apple's little sidestep with the square and somehow fat-looking previous generation of iPod nano is gone, replaced by a svelte rectangular model. The sides are a curved oval of aluminum and glass, designed to feel remarkably thin in the hand. In fact, it's the thinnest iPod ever. It comes in nine new vibrant colors. The portrait display is the same size as the display in the previous generation nano -- it's just flipped 90 degrees to accommodate the thin rectangular design.

On the inside, it's got an accelerometer that detects movement and switches the display to show Apple's Cover Flow navigation system when its turned, and if lightly shaken, it'll automatically go into shuffle mode. It now comes in an 8 GB model for US$149 and a 16 GB model for $199.

Apple has refined the user interface to make it more intuitive and easy to use, and it incorporates Apple's Genius technology -- more on the Genius feature below. So what is the iPod nano missing? It doesn't have WiFi, though even Apple might not be up to the task of adding WiFi to such a small device. And the battery? It offers 24 hours of music playback or 4 hours of video playback.

The iPod touch ... Refined

The iPod touch, which is eerily similar to Apple's iPhone, retains its basic design with some refinements. It's thinner, has integrated volume controls and a new speaker.

"iPod touch is the funnest iPod we've ever created," Jobs noted, giving the iPod touch a bit of market positioning. The accelerometer is used for games, the big screen for movies, and the App Store, of course, can turn it into a PDA-like device.

It has 802.11 b/g WiFi -- but no GPS chipset -- and costs $229 for 8 GB, $299 for 16 GB, and $399 for 32 GB. All models now have built-in Nike + iPod support (though customers will need an extra sensor to slip into their shoe).

The iPod classic also got a boost -- the thicker version is gone and the hard drive jumps to 120 GB; it's capable of holding a mere 30,000 songs or 150 hours of video and goes for $249.

Better Browsing in iTunes 8

The biggest new feature of iTunes 8 is the Genius feature, which lets users choose a song or songs they like and automatically generate a playlist of complementary music from their music library -- with just one click. In addition to generating the playlist, Genius suggests related songs available from iTunes that users might want to add to their collections. In some ways, Genius is like the online radio service Pandora, which plays songs that match a base list of songs. Either way, might Apple's Genius feature result in a blast of new song sales, further cementing Apple's digital music lead?

"The first thing Genius will do is make listening to music better using the music you already own," James McQuivey, a Forrester analyst and vice president of media research, told MacNewsWorld.

"This is critical. Too many people fill up their iPods and iTunes libraries with music and then run out of things to listen to because the process of creating useful playlists is painful and broken. By fixing that, Apple ensures that iPods will be listened to more often, and that iTunes will continue to be the dominant music management application," he said.

"Now, with that powerful tool working away behind the scenes, if Apple plays it right, they should be able to drive track sales up by 10 percent -- maybe more, depending on how effectively they implement the service," suggested McQuivey.

"It goes like this: Genius builds a playlist based on some songs you choose. Then Genius slips in a few songs you don't own -- I don't expect them to do this soon, but if they can talk the music industry into it, it will be a huge hit. You get to listen to the song once or twice, as a promotion. A short announcement says, 'We thought you'd like this song. If you do, click here to buy it at iTunes,' and boom, you've bought a track you know you will like," he explained.

"It's like putting gum next to the checkout stand. It will make it 10 times easier to successfully buy music from iTunes," McQuivey added.

Of course, Apple didn't mention any such plans -- but the point remains, Genius makes a next-generation song marketing effort possible.

The free-release download of iTunes 8 also includes a new visual browsing interface that displays music and video libraries using album and video covers, and also provides a new way to navigate through movies, TV shows, iPhone apps, podcasts and audiobooks, Apple says.

NBC Is Back

Without noting the deep dark secrets surrounding the NBC-Apple power struggle over NBC programming in the iTunes Store, Apple was clearly pleased to announce that NBC is back.

"We are thrilled that NBC is back on iTunes in time for the Fall TV season," Jobs noted. "NBC has some of TV's most popular shows."

iTunes customers can choose programming from NBC, USA Network, Sci Fi Channel, Bravo, Sleuth and NBC News including favorites such as "Heroes," "The Office," "Battlestar Galactica" and "30 Rock."

"The return of our shows to iTunes is terrific news for everyone who loves television and the ease and convenience of Apple's iTunes," noted Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal.

Plus, iTunes 8 now supports HD television shows, though the HD versions cost a bit more. Pricing is $2.99 for HD, while the SD versions remain $1.99.

Wrapping Up the Minor Details

Almost as an aside, Apple also introduced a set of new in-ear headphones that'll go for $79 -- but won't be available until October.

Last but not least, iPhone users will see the much-needed iPhone 2.1 Software Update this Friday. Jobs noted that it contains a variety of improvements that should help with 3G coverage and connectivity issues that some customers have had.

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