Backstage: Guessing what’s to come in January

With only a couple of weeks left until Apple reveals its newest lineup of iPods (and possibly computers) to the world, I figure that a few words are in order as to what we’re expecting to see at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco.

Sum it up as “triumph of the low-end.” For the last year, iLounge has repeatedly said that the future of the iPod brand is (for better or worse) in offering products at price points that average people can afford. If analysts and business magazines can be believed, Apple is ready to do that in a big way, and will announce at least three new low-priced iPod-related products at the Expo.

It’s all but a foregone conclusion that Apple will introduce a flash memory-based version of the iPod, with most analysts and business magazines assuming that the device will retail at $99 and up and come in multiple memory sizes from 256 megabytes (60-65 songs) to 1 gigabyte (250 songs). The device’s name remains unknown – but titles from “iPod flash” (unlikely) to “iPod micro” (possible, but increasingly unlikely given other “micros” like the Creative Zen Micro) have been tossed out, and other theme-based possibilities like “iPod sport” are out there as well. Apple will score 100 iLounge bonus points if they design these things to function as high-end remote controls for current-model iPods, and lose 200 points if they eliminate the iPod’s screen altogether. We’ve spent enough time with Oakley’s Thump to know what screenless music surfing is like with a library of 30 songs, and we’re not ready to do that with a 125- or 250-song library. Are you?

Recent comments from Apple have also strongly suggested that the company is preparing to jointly introduce an iPod-ish GSM phone (some are calling it iPhone) with Motorola, featuring iTunes compatibility, music storage, and of course, cellular phone capabilities. Apple design and branding would be a fair bit more than the companies let on in their mid-2004 press release, but not hugely surprising. Let’s hope it’s at least as cool as Motorola’s Razr phone, though I’m thinking it’ll be more like a V600 than that, and Apple is hinting that it’ll be priced at or around the $300 level.

The other big story circulating in analysts’ circles is the replacement of the current model 4GB (1,000 song) iPod mini with a 5GB (1,250) version. While I’m betting that this one will happen as well, the real question is how the iPod mini’s pricing will change as a consequence. Based on current inventory levels of iPod mini hardware – surprisingly robust at Apple Stores we’ve visted, given today’s proximity to the Expo – there are a couple of possibilities. Apple could drop the 5GB iPod mini’s price to $199 and close out 4GB units at $149. Or it could try to sell 5GB iPod minis at $249 and clear out its remaining 4GB hardware at $199. Depending on the price range of flash-based iPods to be introduced, it wouldn’t be surprising if Apple went the higher-priced route – though it would definitely not be our preference to see things go that way. The oratorical appeal of demonstrating the falling price of a 5GB iPod from $399 in 2001 to $199 in 2005 is just too great.

Post-Expo, the iPod family seems quite likely to spread from $99 to $599, flash at the lowest end, followed by mini, full-sized iPods, and iPod photos at the top. Later in the year, it wouldn’t be any shock to see Apple phase out the 40GB iPod and replace it with the 40GB iPod photo at $399, drop the 60GB iPod photo to $499, and offer a high-end video variant at the $599 price point. What do you guys and girls think? Will Apple hit the magic $99 mark? Will it pull its punch again and go with a $149 flash iPod, $249 mini, and $299+ full-sized iPod? Will they drop any other iPod prices, or keep them where they are?

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