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News

iTunes update released; iPod update already available

Apple today released iTunes 6.0.4, which “addresses stability and performance issues related to Front Row,” according to the brief release notes. Front Row is Apple’s Mac-only home media software that offers a slick interface for listening to music, viewing photos and watching videos.

It should also be pointed out that there is no “new” iPod software update for use with Apple’s new iPod Hi-Fi speaker system. Apple CEO Steve Jobs mentioned yesterday that an iPod update was required to take full advantage of the Hi-Fi’s features, but he was only referring to iPod Software 1.1 for the fifth-generation iPod and iPod nano, which was included in January’s iPod Updater 2006-01-10.

New iHome speaker systems introduced

iHome, maker of the popular iH5 clock radio speaker system (iLounge Rating: A-), has launched three new iPod audio products.

imageThe iH30 ($150) is a portable boom box for dockable iPods and the iPod shuffle. It features an iPod charging cradle in front and a dedicated iPod shuffle dock on top. The system has an FM radio with presets, an auxiliary line-in for other audio devices, and runs on batteries, AC outlet or car adaptor. It comes with inserts to fit all docking iPods.

imageiHome’s iH26 ($100) is described as a portable travel alarm clock for iPods. Available in white, black or silver, the system allows you to listen and wake up to music on your iPod. It has built-in docks to charge both the iPod and iPod shuffle, and features a folding-speaker design, remote control, auxiliary audio input, battery backup, and a protective carrying case.

imageThe iH36 ($200) is an iPod speaker system designed to be mounted under a kitchen cabinet. It features a charging iPod cradle, iPod shuffle dock, and lets you listen to your iPod, FM radio, TV or weather channels. The iH36 also has a battery back up, large digital display, and includes all mounting hardware.

There’s no word on expected availability for any of the systems.

DLO debuts TransDock Micro FM transmitter/charger

imageDigital Lifestyle Outfitters today announced the TransDock Micro, a new iPod FM transmitter and car charger. The TransDock Micro features a removable docking cable, a back-lit LCD display, 4 programmable presets, and auxiliary audio input and output for use with other devices. The $70 accessory works with all currently shipping iPods and can also charge other USB based devices.

“Based on the award winning DLO TransPod, the new DLO TransDock micro is the easiest way to enjoy iPod’s music in the car,” says the company. “Users simply plug the TransDock micro into any available auto power outlet, connect the iPod to the TransDock micro’s dock cable and play their music over any available FM radio station in their car.”

Analysts weigh in on Apple announcements

The consensus among tech analysts is that Apple’s new iPod Hi-Fi and updated Mac minis bring the company closer to the center of the digital living room, but also show that Apple is not afraid of alienating iPod accessory makers.

“Both these products are a way to get more people slowly hooked into the Apple brand in the living room, sort of like what Sony did in its heyday,” said Sam Bhavnani, an analyst at research firm Current Analysis.

Needham & Company analyst Charlie Wolf said he thinks the announcements are “just the start” of Apple’s digital home strategy. “It’s still a little computer, but it’s adding a lot of capabilities that will allow it to morph into an entertainment center in the living room,” said Wolf.

“Apple is taking steps to move their brand to other rooms beyond just the Mac,” said analyst Tim Bajarin of research firm Creative Strategies of the Hi-Fi. “It’s no longer just sitting in the den.”

“I think they are going straight at the ultimate goal of digital convergence,” Lehman Brothers analyst Harry Blount commented. “Apple already has a powerful media portal on the Internet and they need to extent the virtual portal into your living room.” Blount said Apple “stills need to do more work on the boom box,” referring to the iPod Hi-Fi. “That is where I wasn’t blown away.”

Merrill Lynch analyst Richard Farmer wonders if the two products required a special event, and if they’re both too overpriced. In a research note provided to iLounge, he said that Apple “needs to be judicious if it expects to continue to convert journalists into marketing instruments with its aura of secrecy.” Farmer also said that high pricing for the Hi-Fi and new leather iPod cases suggests Apple “believes it can position its accessories at a premium to competing alternatives.”

“The price point and form factor are likely to appeal to people who are younger and have less disposable income, and who are making their first home stereo purchase,” said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. “It’s less likely to appeal to people who have a home entertainment system.”

Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, said that iPod accessory makers should be wary of Apple’s major new entrance into the iPod add-on ecosystem. “If you’re an iPod accessories maker, (Tuesday’s) announcement has to make you nervous,” said Enderle. “The accessories market is clearly very lucrative, and Apple will be getting more aggressive.”

“I was surprised when I saw that Apple was releasing another major iPod accessory,” said Technology Business Research senior analyst Tim Deal, noting the release of the iPod Radio Remote earlier this year. “This sends a clear message to iPod developers and I’m sure it will breed some ill will.”

Napster blames Microsoft for iTunes domination

Napster’s chief executive says that Microsoft and its hardware partners are to blame for Apple’s dominant 80 percent market share in digital music sales.

“There is no question that their execution has been less than brilliant over the last 12 months,” Napster CEO Chris Gorog said at the Reuters Global Technology, Media and Telecoms Summit in New York. “Our business does rely on Microsoft’s digital rights management software and our business model also relies on Microsoft’s ecosystem of device manufacturers.”

“It’s a lot more complex to get organized properly than it is to build one device and one service as Apple has done,” Gorog added. “It’s always been painful at the introduction of new technologies. But it always takes shape like it’s done in the past.” Gorog still contends that the Microsoft partners will win. “Ultimately, the consumer electronics giants… are all going to come to this Windows Media party,” he said. “This is really going to be the ubiquitous format.”

Apple to benefit from home audio slowdown

The wide-spread shift from CDs to MP3s and iPods has caused a drop in sales of large home audio systems, putting Apple in a prime position to sell its new iPod Hi-Fi to consumers looking for a simple way to enjoy their digital audio at home. While electronics manufacturers race to add iPod connectivity to their equipment, a new report in the Wall Street Journal says it may be too little too late.

“Sales of traditional stereos have taken a hit,” the Journal reports. “Last year, retail sales of home audio equipment, including stereo system components and surround-sound ‘home theater in a box’ rigs, dropped nearly 18%, to 10.2 million units, according to market-research firm NPD Group Inc. In the same period, sales of portable digital players like Apple’s iPod more than tripled, to 22.4 million units in 2005, from 7.1 million in 2004, says the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group.”

Music fans aren’t just exclusively listening to their downloaded tunes on an iPod either. “Even when consumers aren’t using portable devices, more are shifting their music consumption away from stereos,” the newspaper says. “Among 1,031 adult respondents to a consumer-behavior survey published last year by the CEA, 34% said they listened to music at home primarily on a PC, compared with just 26% who said they used a stereo or surround-sound receiver as their main home listening system.”

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