Is iPod’s cool melting, or are grand plans afoot? [updated]

Is iPod’s cool melting, or are grand plans afoot? [updated] 1

Was it a deliberate leak? The work of a spy inside Apple who’s currently being pursued by company security? When asked about the source of several recent image leaks—most notably, photos purporting to show a newly shortened, thinned, and colored video iPod—Apple declined to comment for this story. But following the company’s request that sites remove the images, and several other recent leaks of Apple product images that turned out to be true, Apple-watching journalists and fans alike have reached two conclusions: the iPods are real, and by comparison with the current and popular iPod lineup, they’re not sexy.

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In the weeks since the new iPods—thought by some to be sixth-generation iPods, and others to be third-generation iPod nanos—first began to appear in text descriptions and rough sketches online, readers have expressed skepticism that the cool-obsessed Apple would create a product with such characteristics. Rather than depicting the rectangular, touchscreen-equipped iPod that has been anticipated for years, the images showed squat, square-ish colored metal iPods with 5G iPod-like screens now increasingly disproportionate to their iPod nano-sized Click Wheels, with tapering at the corners for the appearance of thinness.

Professional and backseat designers alike suggested that Apple’s increasingly legendary industrial design team would never pick the radiuses, tapering, or proportions of the device’s parts; if nothing else, it would represent a devolution from the iPod nano it was claimed to replace. The look alone violated an unwritten rule of Apple products: “you will appear before them, and they shall covet you as better.”

 

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Our strong belief is that the device is simultaneously real, misunderstood, and part of a larger Apple plan for the end of 2007. First, though it was only yesterday that the images appeared online and were removed, the same form factor and features have been the topics of discussion here and overseas for some time now. Amazingly, we have seen evidence that international vendors have already finished case designs around the new form factor, which is understood to be smaller in all dimensions save perhaps width than current fifth-generation iPods, and based upon flash memory rather than hard disk technology.

The misunderstanding, we believe, is in the device’s intended name and purpose. Those who would describe it as a “third-generation iPod nano” ignore that the previous nano’s physical volume—invariably subject to shrinkage rather than enlargement by Apple— would be roughly doubled in this model, leading to potential size and “cool factor” concerns amongst the young and athletic crowds the nano targets. History shows that there’s a much better chance that Apple would further shrink and cheapen the nano than it would make it bigger and more powerful.

 

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Updated: This new graphic provides a more accurate size estimate than its predecessor;
the new iPod’s screen is believed to be slightly smaller than the 5G’s 2.5” display

For that reason, the new device is more practically understood as a sixth-generation iPod, with substantially diminished volume relative to 2005 and 2006 models, the added color options users have requested for the past several years, and—except for storage capacity—similar features to its fifth-generation predecessor. Unless Apple has adopted newer, smaller hard drive technologies or as yet underpublicized new memory chips, flash storage remains incredibly expensive in 5G iPod-matching 30- and 80GB capacities. For reference, Toshiba plans to introduce 32GB flash memory cards for $700 in January of 2008, and 16GB cards for $350, making it much more likely that Apple will release these models with less memory than current hard disk-based iPods.

Does that make any sense? Not initially: Apple could not do away with 30GB and 80GB iPods in favor of markedly lower-capacity, thinner models. But it could well introduce the flash video iPod as an intermediate step between the popular iPod nano and a more iPhone-like widescreen video player, which would include hard disk-based storage at equivalent or higher capacities to today’s fifth-generation iPods. Such a device has been discussed for months, including in public statements by Apple partners, and would satisfy the millions of users who have been waiting for a superior video iPod at a more reasonable price. As with the iPhone, it might make sense to use OS X as the operating system for a widescreen video device—particularly one with wireless or other advanced features—but the required chips, new software, and battery demands for OS X might not make sense for a simpler sequel to the 5G iPod, which would otherwise see noticeable performance gains merely by using flash memory and a less power-hungry chipset than today’s model.

In recent months, the once-impossible thought of image leaks from Apple has become an increasingly common reality, with certain iPhone, iMac, and iPod component and software photos appearing online before official Apple announcements. Surprisingly, and perhaps intentionally, the images have often highlighted potentially controversial elements of Apple products: the new iMac’s unusually small keyboard, a more animated iPod interface, and now, iPod bodies that don’t precisely match the proportions of their predecessors. Apple wouldn’t comment on whether it leaks and then withdraws images to let its most opinionated customers vent before a launch takes place, but we’re beginning to suspect that’s the case—either that, or the company has one or two unusually well-informed spies in its midst, and no one has the ability to stop them.

[Editor’s Note: This article was updated on August 24 with new imagery to estimate the size of the new iPod relative to current models. Special thanks to Bob Levens for his assistance.]

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