Some of our readers have called Apple’s It’s Only Rock and Roll media event the most disappointing iPod release party in the family’s history. They’ve pointed, variously, to supposedly iterative tweaks to the iPod nano, even more minor changes to the iPod touch, and all but non-existent changes to the iPod shuffle and iPod classic as evidence that a ball or three were dropped heading into the 2009 holiday season. Something bigger was needed, the meme goes, and this. event. wasn’t. enough. Grrrrrr! Right?
Not really. Having attended Apple’s events for years, we’d like to offer a somewhat different perspective on the day’s announcements, which surely struck us as iterative and a little “off,” but should also be understood for what they are: solid, if overly slow progress. We’ll work through each of the announcements in turn.
The Fifth-Generation iPod nano: Held until last, this was the event’s biggest announcement by far, for reasons which most likely have gotten lost in all the grumbling over the rest of the event. We’ve known for the better part of 2009 that Apple was going to add a camera to the iPod nano, but no one knew for sure whether it was going to be a video camera, a still camera, or worse yet, a really crappy still camera—one worse than the original iPhone’s. It could have happened: this is the iPod nano, not an iPhone, and there are no guarantees that the quality of whatever parts Apple would have picked for such a small device would have delivered excellent results. Yet the nano wound up with video recording features that in some ways rival the iPhone 3GS’s. There mightn’t be a clip editor, but there’s a mic, as well as new video effects* a la iChat, plus a 640×480 resolution. In some ways, this little video camera is a huge deal—a potentially massive selling point for kids in a device that only a year ago looked to be tapped out in ways to grow. The absence of a still camera may well wind up being totally irrelevant to younger users, for whom video is the defacto recording format, anyway.
(* For those who may be interested, the video processing effects are: Normal, Black & White, X-Ray, Sepia, Thermal, Cyborg, Security Cam, Film Grain, Kaleido, Mirror, Bulge, Motion Blur, Dent, Twirl, Light Tunnel, Twist, and Stretch. They’re all processed in realtime by the iPod nano; none of these effects (save of course Normal) have been included on iPhones.)
Then there’s the wide, 2.2” screen, which adds more pixels. The integrated FM radio, which can pause currently playing content. And for some people, there’s the walk-measuring pedometer feature—a limited integrated Nike+ function. It seems crazy, nonsensical even, that the iPod nano would of all iPods wind up with so many new features, and they compensate for the fact that the 8GB model remained at its prior price; the 16GB model winds up an even better deal than last year’s at $179. And those new glossy bodies? Give us a little time to see how well they withstand damage, but on first inspection, they looked and felt like film-coated fourth-generation nanos. If there was anything to be concerned about in this new nano, other than potential audio quality and other “gotchas” yet to be discovered, it would be the battery life, but we’ll measure that and let you know the score.
The Third-Generation iPod touch: There’s no question that the changes Apple made to this model were complete snoozers from a cosmetic standpoint: apart from the new 64GB badge on the back of the most expensive iPod touch, there’s virtually nothing different about the old and new models, and a planned video camera addition apparently failed to materialize at the last minute due to a problem with the camera hardware. At least, that’s what some—not Apple—have said. In any case, the biggest changes are under the hood, including a CPU and GPU combination that are faster than the prior iPod touch’s, and possibly even the iPhone 3GS’s: Apple claims a 50% increase in performance, which would put the new model at 800MHz versus the 600MHz iPhone 3GS. Gamers will be the primary beneficiaries of this new feature, assuming that it doesn’t have a negative impact on battery life. But it may.
If there’s any argument to be made that the new iPod touch is a disappointment, that would be based on expectations that appear not to be fulfillable until 2010. Those awaiting the magical 128GB iPod touch and/or a model with a camera will have to wait until then; hopefully there will be some other new features in the pipeline by that point as well. It remains to be seen whether iPhone 3GS features such as the magnetometer and GPS really gather steam since they remain exclusive to the iPhone lineup. This year’s iPod touch model will satisfy those willing to accept more capacity at last year’s prices, and those who wanted the Accessibility function from the iPhone 3GS, which we’re very glad to see here, but want to see in other models as well.
The Second-Generation iPod touch, Again: As with the iPhone 3GS, Apple has kept around the prior-generation 8GB iPod touch solely to hit a new low price point for the family of $199. Those interested in the low-end model will get starter iPod nano-class storage capacity, the only bummer about an otherwise nicely-priced item in the lineup.
The Third-Generation iPod shuffle, Again: It was all but inevitable that Apple would keep the third-generation iPod shuffle around for another year, and do little more than tweak its colors and capacities in the process; the second-generation iPod shuffle went through three color stages before it was discontinued.
So now there are 2GB ($59) and 4GB ($79) iPod shuffles in five different colors, including somewhat faded blue, pink, and green tones that aren’t quite as sharp as last year’s or this year’s iPod nanos, and a fully chromed stainless steel version that sells for a surprising $99 as a “Special Edition.” We remain absolutely disinterested in this model and feel that it represents a poor value relative to other iPods, making the prior-generation iPod shuffle seem downright worthwhile by comparison. A new coat of paint (or metal) isn’t enough to change our minds.
Goodbye, Second-Generation iPod shuffle: We never thought we’d see the day when we missed the sonically unimpressive, long-in-tooth second-gen shuffle, but after a long phase-out that unusually saw Apple continue to sell two very different iPod shuffles at once, all that’s left now is the buttonless slate version. Would it have killed Apple to add three buttons to the third-generation model’s face or side before discontinuing the second-generation shuffle?
The Second-Generation iPod classic, Again: When Apple first introduced the iPod classic, the hard drive-based model seemed destined for discontinuation in the near future, but it’s going to survive to its third year on the market—a staggering sign of how Apple’s iterative approach to product releases can drag out the useful lifespan of one product while limiting the market for another. (We’re looking at you again, magical 128GB iPod touch.) Other than a boost to 160GB of storage capacity at the same price, with the same prior-generation 80GB and 120GB thinness, the new iPod classic doesn’t appear to have received any other new features, and preserves silver and black front body colors with stainless steel backs. Apple didn’t even have a demonstration area to show off this model, a sign that it doesn’t care much about it.
The classic’s future has never looked more bleak; the iPod nano is surging ahead of it in features, even gaining in screen size, and with no new game releases for either the nano or classic in many months, the App-friendly iPod touch seems a smarter buy for everything save raw capacity and battery life. Unless you’re a hard core music junkie with a massive or Apple Lossless collection, this model has lost a lot of appeal.
iTunes 9: Readers have told us over the past few years that what they’re really looking for in iTunes isn’t so much new functionality, but a faster, more stable piece of software, particularly on Windows PCs. It remains to be seen whether iTunes 9 is going to prove more nimble than its predecessors, but Apple has once again added a bunch of little features that seem to have been designed largely to improve the sales of iTunes Store content, such as wish lists, iTunes LP and Extras wrappers for albums and movies—bona-fide nice additions that bridge the gap between DVD and iTunes video releases, and expand the value of former CD releases—and Facebook/Twitter posting features that let you tell your friends to visit the Store and buy stuff. If this all seems a little self-serving on Apple’s part, sure, it is, but unlike the maligned Mini Store, these features actually track with the way people want to communicate about and buy media.
The more significant changes to iTunes 9 are the improved iPhone and iPod touch synchronization mechanism, which finally allows in-iTunes organization of multiple home screens—a feature people have been pining for since the release of Web Apps, and screaming for since the App Store—as well as Home Sharing, which expands the ability of multiple computers in one home to combine their libraries. Home Sharing expands prior iTunes streaming functionality to let people actually copy music tracks, videos, audiobooks and apps between five computers, effectively giving people the ability to make easy use of the multi-computer usage rights they’ve had under FairPlay DRM for years. This doesn’t solve some of the serious whole-house iTunes library management problems we identified some time ago, namely, providing centralized storage for growing collections of music, movies, and apps, but it’s one step closer.
Oh, and ringtones in iTunes 9? Yeah, please never buy them. Especially for $1.29. Tell the recording industry and its repeatedly awful cash grabs to take a long walk off a short pier. Thanks.
iPhone OS 3.1: There’s a lot here. Apart from a few key additions—iPhone 3GS Bluetooth Voice Control, for instance—it’s all in the small but welcome fix category, which is why Apple glossed over the specifics at the event. It’s not worth a lot of discussion, and it’s becoming seriously maddening that the company is saving important bug fixes for big public debuts rather than releasing them quickly. But the significance of the release, details from which have been leaking for months, is also not worth overlooking entirely, either.
Pricing Schemes, Or, What Happened Overnight: In the history of iPod events, there has never been anything quite like what happened this morning, when Apple’s online Store site was half-updated to show a slate of new iPod prices that turned out to be wrong… or at least, not reflective of the brand-new lineup that was about to be introduced. Under what was supposed to be the new price regime, the 8GB iPod touch was supposed to be $189 rather than $199, with price drops between $20 and $120 depending on models.
But the prices weren’t wrong: they were just an odd little temporal anomaly. Normally, the prices for discontinued but still in stock models go in the part of the store reserved for discontinued iPods, and the price changes take place only after new models and their prices have been announced. This time, it appears that the price changes were erroneously placed on the active pages for current models before the new launches took place; we use the word “appears” only because it might have been done deliberately to draw attention to the attractive prices of considerably overstocked old models. We’d doubt that—it was probably a screw-up—but the old model prices do work within the new models’ pricing scheme.
2009 iPod nano 8GB $149
2008 iPod nano 16GB $149
2009 iPod nano 16GB $179
2008 iPod classic 120GB $229
2009 iPod classic 160GB $249
2008 iPod touch 8GB (iPhone OS 2.0) $189
2009 iPod touch 8GB (iPhone OS 3.1.1) $199
2008 iPod touch 16GB (iPhone OS 2.0) $249
2008 iPod touch 32GB (iPhone OS 2.0) $279
2009 iPod touch 32GB (iPhone OS 3.1.1) $299
2009 iPod touch 64GB (iPhone OS 3.1.1) $399
Summary, and What Was Missing: Those who went into the Only Rock and Roll event expecting something big on the high-end of the scale were justifiably disappointed—rumors of one or more Apple Tablet devices (computer and/or oversized iPod touch) have been circulating non-stop for months, as was speculation that the Beatles would be announced as participants in the iTunes Store, and the “iPod touch gets a camera” story appeared to have been highly likely up until literally last-minute reports of problems. Even mid-grade rumors, such as high-definition video support in the iPods and iPhone 3GS, and a camera for the iPod classic, wound up bearing no fruit. On a positive note for Beatles fans, the entire remastered collection did in fact materialize in stores, so you can buy whichever albums you want right now—and not have to worry about making your own backups of iTunes files.
Were we disappointed by what took place? Sort of. This is the third event that has come and gone without the silver bullet 100GB+ iPod touch we’ve been looking for. There are also increasingly troubling signs that an Apple without Steve Jobs does not run as smoothly or as reliably as it should, and that Apple with even a part-time Steve Jobs makes a lot more mistakes than it did when he was healthier and in micromanaging command. It is possible that the issues are due in part to the iPod and iPhone division facing a multi-month legal delay in bringing on its new Vice President Mark Papermaster, losing considerable staff to Palm, and/or just suffering some untimely component/software problems that couldn’t be resolved in time for September. But our gut feeling is that Steve Jobs does as much to keep Apple’s development trains running on time as Tim Cook does with its production lines. Whatever actually happened won’t be known for years, if at all, but whatever’s been going on hasn’t been entirely good.
Yet there are plenty of people who had something to cheer about today: those who were awaiting more capable iPod nanos, and those who wanted either cheaper or more capacious iPod touches. Between current and discontinued models, iPod nanos can now be had for $129 to $179, and iPod touches for $189 and up, all representing better values than they offered before. We also finally got a much-needed way to clean up the Home screens of our iPod touches and iPhones, and a method to easily share iTunes content between multiple computers. Exciting? Perhaps not. But Apple will have a pretty good holiday season, anyway.