Backstage: What worked, and didn’t, at the Apple event

We have to hand it to Apple Computer: they certainly know how to put on a show. There were so many things right about today’s “Special Event” that we hate to have to present a balanced picture of it, because the enthusiastic side of us wants to focus entirely on the good. But here’s a breakdown of what went right, so-so, and wrong, this morning in San Francisco.

The Right

iPod nano. Nothing more needs to be said about this device other than what’s on the site’s main page. It’s elegant, beautiful, and going to be absolute dynamite. Apple had better have a billion of these things in stores for the holidays, because they are going to shock people into impulse purchases.

Marketing. We’ll skip the iPod nano commercial for the moment, though we think it’s going to do a great job of communicating what Apple’s pulled off. What was more impressive is that Apple’s marketing acumen has rubbed off on Motorola and Cingular in a big way. The companies’ ROKR E1 commercials are nothing short of superb – better, in fact, than any of the memorable but vacuous silhouette ads we’ve endured for far too long. Motorola’s memorable “musicians in a phone booth” ad was a great evolution of the earlier BMW iPod integration commercial, with a great tag line: “100 tunes in your phone, baby,” by perennial iLounge favorite Bootsy Collins. Cingular’s print and bus ads were less spectacular – goofy, even – but its three commercials (two English, one Spanish) were similarly inspired evolutions of the iPod silhouettes: mirror and shadow reflections of average people holding phones, turned into dancers inspired by the music. If nothing else was right about the first ROKR phone, these ads will guarantee that some people are excited by the idea.

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Kanye. The choice of Kanye West to perform at the event was awesome. As someone said in the crowd behind us after the performance and loud applause, “I can’t believe they were able to get him.” Believe it. Madonna (who appeared by iSight video connection earlier in the show) wasn’t a hard one to entice – her name was engraved on an early-model iPod, after all – but Kanye is new blood by iPod standards, and amazingly talented, besides. Whoever picked him for the event deserves three gold stars – what a perfect way to wrap up the show.

The Stats. 1,000 accessories? Yeah, we know – maybe 200 of them seem to have arrived last month (kidding). 600 million iTunes Songs. Something close to 27 million iPods sold. iPod nano’s about to guarantee the number goes up way further, and without pulling a shuffle to make it happen.

The Middling

iTunes 5. While superior to iTunes 4.9, this seemingly incremental upgrade to iTunes fell a bit short of what people would have expected from a fifth-generation release of the world’s most popular music software. Folders of playlists may have been its most attention-grabbing new feature, while again most of its new features are hidden in preferences menus. The statement, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may apply here, but Apple’s never been the company to follow that formula.

iPod nano Commercial. It’s cute. It conveys its message quite well. But it needs a bit more music emphasis. Right now, it sells a gadget, not a tool. We want to love it in the same way as we want to love Apple’s black and silver iPod boxes: it just looks classy and smart, yet as much as we were put off by the silhouette stuff, it doesn’t have equivalent energy.

The Wrong

ROKR. It may be too early to declare the ROKR phone a dud, and we’re certainly not going to do that without fully testing one, but we cannot claim to be excited about it whatsoever. Just because we consume air and water doesn’t mean we’d want to consume both at the same time, and ROKR looks like sort of the same thing right now – an uneasy mix of entertainment and communication necessity that doesn’t seem to have fully addressed most of our concerns.

Could we be eating those words soon? Perhaps. Maybe it is a truly great mobile phone in reception – we couldn’t test the reception inside or in a controlled environment. And maybe it is a great music player despite the awkward interface. We couldn’t test it with our own headphones because they didn’t have an adaptor cable handy. And maybe enough people buy candybar phones that this one’s added iTunes feature will just seem like a nice bonus at relatively low expense.

But suffice to say that this ROKR – a retrofit that felt like a retrofit – was not what we expect from a company with Apple’s incredible design acumen. It has a goofy name, plus a shape and thickness that Motorola’s Ed Zander indirectly disparaged in describing either the SLVR phone at MotoNOW. (Zander suggested that they reinvented the candybar phone in a sleeker, superior form factor because they disliked it; we’ve never liked candybar phones, and ROKR is old school candybar – not SLVR-class, or (our preferred) flip phone. We’d give up the speakers any day to shave that thing down to a smaller size.

No Video iPod. Much to our chagrin, this event was focused on the middle of the iPod family, not its top. Will this be the first holiday season without a $499 premium iPod? We really hope not. The money’s burning a hole in our pockets, and there’s another month left for Apple to surprise us. But our enthusiasm is beginning to fade on this one.

Even if Apple wants to knock the Sony PSP in its presentation – a funny moment, yes – the company is not going to convince me, or most PSP owners, that an iPod is a complete alternative. Right now, comparing sales of the two devices is classic apples to oranges stuff, and just the sort of thinking that gets really smart companies in trouble. We sincerely hope this is the last time Apple’s going to show up to one of these events prepared to fight the emerging portable video trend with sales numbers instead of a competing device.

The (Sorta) Surprise: Bye, Bye, Extended Headphone Port

It wasn’t a total shock to see it go, but we aren’t totally thrilled that all of the iPod’s remote controls, radio receivers, and almost all of its FM transmitters are now fully incompatible with smaller-sized iPods. The shuffle began the process, and the iPod nano as replacement for the iPod mini continues that trend. The biggest beneficiaries? Belkin’s TuneCast II as a portable transmitter, and all of the in-car transmitters we’ve tested. There are certain to be some other significant consequences for this change, and we’ll be seeing them play out over the next few months as iPod accessory makers struggle to figure out how to design one-size-fits-all iPod add-ons.

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