Future Pods

Even technophiles have conceded that 2003 was not a banner year for portable gadgets. With the exception of a certain shining white star – one that sold out in stores across the world and established Apple Computer as the dominant player in the digital music industry – there wasn’t much pocket-friendly hardware to slobber over last year.

But the ever-optimistic crew at iLounge has continued to dream about the surprises Apple might have in store for the 2004 holiday season, and we wanted to share some of our thoughts with you. When you’re done reading, it’s your turn. If your creative impulses kick in, please add your comments – positive or negative – to the bottom of this article, and feel free to send us your best concept drawings or renderings for these devices, and we’ll post the best of them here.

iPod Pro | iPod 2 | iPod AV (Video iPod) | iPod mini 2

iPod Pro

Likely Features: Superior audio output, elite exterior casing, same-to-larger size, premium price tag
Likely Price: $399-$599

Though today’s iPods remain ever-so-slightly out of the mainstream user’s grasp at $299 and up, we expect that three trends (continued iPod popularity, co-branding announcements such as HP’s iPod embrace, and the release of the iPod mini) will contribute to an Apple decision to create a third iPod brand, iPod Pro. The original iPod will slowly fall in price to become Apple’s “mainstream” version of Sony’s Walkman, the iPod mini will morph to resemble either Sony’s Sports series Walkmen or a cheapie device with Nokia-style interchangeable faceplates, and iPod Pro will be aimed at DJs and higher-end “prosumer” consumers with extra cash.

The look and feel of an iPod Pro would be an evolution in class over the current iPod line, rather than a devolution, and the physical size would likely remain at least as large as current model iPods, if not return back to their predecessors’ slightly larger size. A higher-capacity battery would be the primary reason for this, although an extra chip or two might be inside the iPod Pro as well – for wireless and/or Bluetooth functionality. We’d rate the latter feature unlikely but possible.

We would imagine that iPod Pro would include a more powerful and sophisticated amplifier, with better equalizer functionality and perhaps 5.0/5.1 surround sound output. Relatively simple additions to the iPod’s playback functionality would include enhanced versions of the DJ-friendly time-scaling (speed up/slow down) and pitch adjustment features that Creative Labs has already included in its recent audio products. Our dream features would be live remixing ability to permit audio sampling, DJ-style record scratching using the scroll-wheel, and cross-fading between songs. (Truth be told, we think a second scroll-wheel for scratching and effects would be seriously cool, but highly unlikely.)

From Apple’s standpoint, and possibly for legal reasons, the biggest question mark would probably be whether to enable the iPod Pro to encode AACs or MP3s in realtime. We think true line-quality recording capabilities – a notable but probably very deliberate omission in the current iPods – would be almost mandatory for professional and prosumer users, and a feature that would nearly justify a higher pricetag. Do you agree? Disagree?

iPod 2

Likely Features: Same to Smaller-Sized Case, Enhanced RAM buffer, Modestly Superior Battery Life Augmented with Removable Battery, Enhanced Accessories
Likely Price: $249-499

Unlike an iPod Pro device aimed at wealthier consumers, the iPod 2 would be the fourth-generation version of the original iPod released in 2001, and like its predecessors, probably would not carry a “sequel” name for brand continuity reasons. Yet we would expect that this device would again change the “iPod’s” look and feel at least incrementally, and break once more from compatibility with the prior-generation iPods’ accessories in order to add increased functionality beyond current peripheral specifications.

While it’s possible that Apple would incorporate the iPod mini’s newly-integrated scroll wheel with buttons into the iPod 2, we’re not yet sure that will happen. We feel significantly more comfortable assuming that the device’s primary innovations will relate to its battery performance, which is today the subject of serious concern – and even lawsuits. The next-generation iPod will most likely switch to a user-replaceable proprietary battery that will be supplied (at a $39-49 price tag) by Apple, though the question of how to smartly integrate this into the chic iPod casing remains open. We suspect that Apple will develop a small, detachable rear panel rather than allow users to slide off or pry open the entire back of the iPod; Creative Labs’ recent implementation of a detachable front panel for battery replacement was a welcome functional addition to its Zen NX and Xtra players, but cheapened the device’s aesthetic in a way Apple wouldn’t tolerate.

The iPod, however, has two battery problems: the duration it can play before requiring recharging, and the number of recharges the battery will take before dying. Problem number two is fatal, but problem number one is also serious. Apple will probably consider doubling the current RAM buffer of the iPod in order to reduce hard disk access, thereby extending the apparent life of the battery. Unfortunately, real-life usage problems including randomized play, fast-forwarding, and higher-than-average bitrate recording would continue to create problems for the iPod’s too-tiny battery capacity, which pales by comparison with Creative Labs’ 12-14 hour Zens – and unlike the iPods, Zens actually meet their promised running times. We would therefore hope for, but not expect, a legitimate increase in the iPod’s actual battery capacity, preferably by filling more of the iPod’s case with a larger battery and reducing the size of its circuit board, or by cutting the power consumption of its components. (Some people might even be willing to see a return to the older case size in exchange for a larger battery.)

Accessories will become an increasingly important part of Apple’s iPod strategy going forward, both from an Apple first-party development standpoint and from a third-party licensing standpoint. Though Apple misstepped with their recently released bud-style In-Ear Headphones, as pressure builds on the company to reduce the price of the iPod hardware, Apple will try to sell additional items to help pad their per-device profits.* We would expect a more sophisticated remote control to be under development, most likely including a small but useful LCD screen with limited menu navigation functionality, and we would not be surprised if Apple was preparing Bluetooth or other wireless support for the iPod 2, along with peripherals to take advantage of such functionality.

While some of us feel that these changes will require revisions to the existing iPod dock connector and 4-pin wired remote jack, others believe that these standards will remain the same in an iPod 2. In any case, we would hope that Apple figures out a way to enable the iPod’s remote control buttons (and on-screen/scrollwheel volume adjustment features) to communicate with the external volume controls on future dock-connected peripherals, a recent iLounge pet peeve following our use of products such as Altec Lansing’s inMotion speakers.

Just to mention it, we do not expect that the next audio iPod will include a color screen, cellular telephone features, or enhanced gaming functionality. But we hope Apple comes up with a better memory buffering technique for the next version of Music Quiz, which is brilliant other than its impact on the battery.

[* = The inclusion of most of these features in any soon-to-be-released iPod will depend significantly on how much price pressure Apple feels on the current iPod, and how well the iPod mini performs in the marketplace.]

iPod AV (Video iPod)

Likely Features: Widescreen Color LCD, Miniature Stereo Speakers, 30+ GB hard drive
Likely Price: $499-699

Years after Sony introduced the Walkman, they experimented with various iterations of the Video Walkman – clumsily large all-in-one portable TVs with 8mm tape decks built in. We’ve come a long way since then, and like Walkmen, tapes are all but a thing of the past, as high-capacity hard disks come closer and closer to becoming the default personal storage devices for audio and video – at least TV – programming.

There’s nothing to say that Apple’s first-generation portable video device will contain a hard drive, but we’re betting that it will. Frankly, even the cleanest-looking Apple-branded portable DVD player wouldn’t yield either the oohs and aahs Apple wants or the profit margins on software it really needs. (But amateur concept artists, start your engines: this could be a cool test of your design skills.)

We presently expect that Apple will sit out 2004 and let Microsoft and its partners spend their holiday budgets trying to convince people to buy third-generation recordable portable video devices. (The first generation, Video Walkmen, never took off because of price, size, and reliability issues; the second generation, fairly recent devices by Archos and RCA, lacked mass-market friendly engineering and functionality that their successors will include.) The first of the Microsoft-powered devices, Creative’s Zen Portable Media Center, captured enough positive attention at CES that Steve Jobs felt it necessary to quickly downplay their importance while impishly hinting that Apple might be working on something similar. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t yet seem to grasp (or at least admit) that the market for portable video playback extends beyond movies to include television programming and self-made video, content that consumers are allowed to record and create.

Notably, Microsoft’s Portable Media Center devices will lack a feature their predecessors included: although they can store video on their hard drives, they won’t perform live recording of video output from televisions, VCRs, DVRs or other devices. Whereas the Archos and RCA devices are capable of digitizing video directly onto their hard drives without using a computer, Microsoft’s strategy is to only enable playback of video pre-recorded by a Windows PC or Media Center PC in Windows Media format.

Given that the iPods released to date have had a similar limitation regarding audio (ignore the Belkin Voice Recorder), and similar use of a proprietary format (AAC), we suspect that Apple may well make two unfortunate choices with an iPod AV: first, they may well sell the device without built-in video digitizing in order to encourage the purchase of paid, iTunes-style movie and TV content, and second, Quicktime could be the device’s sole format (over DIVX, MPEG or other formats) in order to encourage the purchase of additional Apple software, if not Macintosh computers, to do the recording.

In our opinion, to follow Microsoft’s lead in requiring proprietary video formats and PC-based recording would be to step into a trap Apple cannot afford, regardless of its successes with iTunes. Unlike the audio market, average people legally create and record plenty of their own video content, and a device which merely plays back proprietary-format movies would miss much of the potential appeal of portable video devices. We therefore hope that the iPod AV will support realtime video digitization and non-proprietary video standards. Apple, are you listening?

iPod mini 2

Likely Features: FM Radio, Eventual Switch to Flash Memory, Different Casings, Totable Straps
Likely Price: $149-$249

Last and perhaps least are our predictions for the iPod mini 2, and if you thought we were speculating before, we’re really imagining things now: any “sequel” device may well never exist if the iPod mini dies after release. (As of today, the iPod mini looks to be an unintentionally mismarketed baby sister to the iPod, with a too-high pricetag given its significantly diminished storage capacity and its less sophisticated casing.)

While the widely rumored $50 drop in price (anticipated by Summer if not sooner) may change the iPod mini’s fortunes, we would be surprised if a smaller and only slightly cheaper 4GB iPod was really what Apple wanted when it began the unit’s design. It might have wanted an iPod primarily geared towards female consumers, it might have wanted to appeal to younger users, or it might have wanted an offering for even more mainstream “active lifestyle” users who enjoy music but don’t accumulate 20GB collections. If it was trying to appeal to all three groups at the same time, the iPod mini starts to make sense, but then, how many people fit into all three groups?

What made far more sense was Sony’s approach over 15 years ago with its Sports series of Walkmen. Don’t get us wrong – the iPod mini’s resilient brushed metal is cool, but it still doesn’t look like something active users would feel safe taking to the beach or jungle. (When Apple’s web site markets the iPod mini to people who want a “three-day weekend getaway,” we hope they’re not suggesting it for safe, quiet indoor getaways.). Water-resistant materials, shock-and-drop protection, and integrated FM radio are the sorts of features active users want, just as Sony proved with the Sports line. (We especially loved their long-discontinued but ultra-rugged “Outback” version – try an eBay search.)

On the other hand, we haven’t reviewed the iPod mini yet, and despite the device’s mixed press, younger and female buyers may actually love the current design of the iPod mini, and inspire Apple to try more ideas to appeal to those constituencies. It could follow Nokia’s lead and produce accessories such as plastic replaceable casings and tote straps, or go the higher brow route with Coach leather parts, depending on how it wants to market the next device.

The internal hardware is also open to question. Flash memory continues to drop in price while increasing in capacity, and although 1-2GB of such memory is still too pricey for Apple to include in an inexpensive iPod, we suspect that if the iPod mini series continues, that’s the direction it will go in. Given warranty and repair headaches, Apple would probably love to advertise and sell a device with zero moving parts almost as much as we’d want to buy one.

We would also imagine that Apple might be tempted to try youth-friendly features in an iPod mini 2 – anything from cellular phone capabilities to Game Boy style color screens and games. But Nokia’s recently spectacular and global flop of their all-in-one N-Gage music/gaming/phone platform should serve as a strong warning against such ambitions, and we think that Apple will be far more likely to avoid taking the next iPod mini down this road than pursue it without the necessary phone and gaming experience.

What do you think of these predictions? And what sorts of new iPods, or iPod features, would you like to see? Share your thoughts with us below!

is Senior Editor of iLounge. His recent book, Law School Insider was named “the best book about law school – ever,” and he continues to practice intellectual property law to the beat of the drummers on his iPod’s playlist.

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