Backstage: Big media rumors and iTunes Phone #2

It’s been one step shy of absurd for months now. Every two weeks, supposed details of a phone with iPod functionality leak out, sometimes from journalists, sometimes from analysts, and occasionally from Motorola product managers or executives. Sometimes the pictures are scary bad, or just boring. Occasionally a detail slips out and actually sounds tantalizing, like car Bluetooth synchronization, or removable flash memory cards. But supposed announcements and release dates come and go, and nothing ever really happens.

Then Apple announces that it will be attending a conference or holding an event, and the rumor bandwagon starts up again. Thus, this morning’s announcement of a September 7 “special event” was immediately followed by myriad claims from all corners as to what will supposedly be shown. Articles like this one from MacDailyNews do an excellent job of summing up all of the speculation (and, frequently, outright BS) that is now getting printed as newsworthy by leading news wires, newspapers, and web sites.

Well, here are a few more supposed details to add to the pile, and they’re the first really “fun” ones we’ve heard in months. Because they’re just rumblings and not quite worthy of being called “news,” they’re not on our front page, but we tend to believe these details more than the others. As always, nothing is certain until an actual unveiling, so take them with a handful of salt.

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We hear that yes, the FCC-approved E790 will be an iTunes phone. But it’s not the only iTunes phone – it’s more like the iPod shuffle of iTunes phones. We’ve heard that the bigger deal iTunes phone will be based upon – we repeat that twice – based upon Motorola’s existing E680i phone, above. Running on Linux, the E680i includes MPEG4 video capture and playback features, integrated stereo speakers for MP3/AAC/etc audio, an FM radio and VGA camera, plus support for stereo Bluetooth wireless headphones. But it also has a touch-sensitive screen – there’s your scroll wheel – a MMC/SD card slot, and support for 3D games. Stores are selling the E680i now for $350-400 without a contract, so it would be a premium model by comparison with the low-end E790.

What does “based upon” really mean, though? We hear, and again, we’ll believe it when we see it, that this will be the “cool” iTunes phone. If you were unenthusiastic about the E790’s aesthetic, join the club. Supposedly, the exterior design of iTunes phone #2 is a mix of Apple and RAZR-era Motorola styling, the result being something that Apple fans will apparently really like. The shot below of the E680i’s rear is merely for illustration; Apple’s version could be entirely different. It could easily add features, lose features, and so on.

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The next question is one we don’t have a good answer to: what about the interface? If you take a few glances at the E680i’s manual (http://www.motorola.com.hk/eng/motomobile/, pick E680i from the Select User Manual drop-down), you’ll see some good stuff – information on the phone-as-camcorder (it can record up to 2 hours of video continuously), browse the web, PDF and Microsoft documents – and some not-so-Apple stuff. Like RealPlayer. A very traditional interface. And so on.

Will the iTunes version of this phone be nearly identical in software, running Linux? Or will Apple go full-bore, creating its own mobile operating system, with a mobile QuickTime client for movies, iTunes client for audio, and so on? We’ll see. Suffice to say that it would be easy to use the existing software and just add iTunes to the phone, but Apple just might surprise everyone. It has a way of doing that.

The only not-so-cool thing we hear about the E680i is that it really sucks battery juice, a claim that we haven’t verified, and can only hope wouldn’t be an issue with an iTunes phone. We have opined for many moons that combining music playback with a cellular phone will be folly if the battery can’t keep up – people won’t readily compromise communication for entertainment.

Again, all of this will remain a big question mark until the actual event goes down in San Francisco, but we’re hoping that (the good parts, of course) pan out. Regardless, we do know that for the first time in months, after many stops and starts, we’re getting excited about the idea of actually carrying an iTunes phone. What about you?

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