New firmware and older iPods

Q: I was hoping you could address a topic that I am very curious about in light of the latest news from Microsoft regarding new and prior generation of Zune players.

My understanding is that the new generation of Zune players has a new user interface and that Microsoft plans on releasing an update that will allow the first generation Zune players to upgrade to the latest user interface.

That said, why can’t Apple provide the means to allow prior iPod generations to be updated with the iPod interface that is now on the classic and new nanos?  I know it may not be possible on some of the older models, but I don’t see why for example the 5G Video iPod can not be upgraded to match the user interface of the current iPod classic.

– Dennis

A: This is an issue that has been hotly debated in our iLounge Discussion Forums following the release of the new iPod models, and there are a number of theories as to why this is the case.

A common theory is that this is being done to sell more iPods, and certainly this is a consideration. The new interface is a selling feature of the new iPod models, and therefore restricting it to the newer models encourages people to either upgrade, or to purchase a new model instead of an older used/refurbished unit.

However, the actual reasons may be far more technical in nature. Despite looking very similar in exterior design, the new iPod models are based on a new hardware architecture internally. This renders the new firmware completely incompatible with the older iPod models, so it’s certainly not as simple as just making the new firmware available for the fifth-generation iPod models—it would have to be rewritten specifically for the fifth-generation iPod.

This is not unprecedented for Apple, either—the second-generation iPod nano, despite using a very similar interface to the first-generation model, was based on a completely different chipset, and therefore required a completely different firmware. In this case, the two firmware packages simply happened to look and work in mostly the same way, so the average end-user really didn’t notice any significant differences.

It is also important to understand that the iPod operating system, or “firmware” operates on the basis of a lot of low-level interaction with the underlying hardware. It has not been designed in the same way that an application on your PC or Mac would be designed, and therefore isn’t as simple as just recompiling it or installing a plug-in.

Further, the new iPod may have a processor that is more optimized for the new features such as Cover Flow and the split-screen artwork. Even if Apple were to design this feature into the fifth-generation iPod, it may not work at an acceptable level of performance.

Ultimately, this means that for Apple to provide the new interface on the older iPod models they would need to invest time and resources in re-architecting the new firmware so that it was compatible with the older models. This involves not only development time, but also thorough testing. Further, it creates potential support issues for Apple—if they provide a firmware update for an out-of-warranty iPod and something breaks in the process, who is responsible for fixing the issue?  Suddenly they will be required to handle an influx of support calls for iPods that were just fine before the update.

In the end, there are definite expenses on the part of Apple to do this, and it is therefore a business decision on the part of Apple as to whether they want to invest any time and money in providing new features on a model that has been discontinued. It is reasonable to assume that the business case for doing this would likely be relatively weak, particularly considering the technical hardware differences between the two models.

In the case of other devices such as the Zune, it is entirely possible that the internal hardware architecture is similar enough that a new firmware update requires less development and testing on the older models. Further, even if there are differences, other manufacturers may have different business reasons that justify the expense of providing new features to older models.

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