iPod Ho-Hum? Or are bigger things to come?

As should be especially apparent today, Apple’s “Special Event” strategy has advantages: the ever-expanding ranks of Apple fans sit on the edge of their seats for roughly a week, and company-related buzz reaches a fever pitch. If something cool is coming – sometimes even if not – Apple’s web site is instantly inundated with orders, and the world talks for the better part of a day about whatever was and wasn’t announced.

By Apple standards, today’s iPod announcements were a bit less than breathtaking. True, it would have been basically impossible to live up to the myriad rumors surrounding the Special Event – you know, the “iFlix Movie Service”, an “Apple media center,” a widescreened “true video iPod,” some “new special edition iPod,” a “Mac Tablet/iPad”, an iPod phone, and the late-breaking claim that Apple was going to release a game console. But everyone had their fingers crossed that at least one of these new things would make an appearance. Obviously, they didn’t.

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What we did get was iPod Hi-Fi – a significant new piece of speaker equipment that appears to be a better performer than Bose’s popular SoundDock, at a premium $349 price – plus some new $99 Apple-branded Italian leather cases for nano and 5G. (What, nothing for the iPod shuffle? Okay, we’re not that surprised.) No doubt Apple will be leveraging its significant retail presence to give these new accessories the sales boost they’ll need; whether they’ll come to outsell existing products will be very, very interesting to watch.

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The more interesting announcements were computer-related. As widely expected, Apple’s Mac minis went over to Intel processors today, in the process jumping from $499-$699 to $599-799 in base pricing. You now get your choice of a Core Solo or Core Duo processor in those machines, along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as standard features. Better yet, Apple now includes Front Row (and an Apple Remote) with every Mac mini, and any iTunes-equipped PC or Mac can now share audio and video content wirelessly with any Mac that’s running Front Row, including the mini.

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This may be a bigger deal than most people realize. Rather than trumpeting this new feature (“Front Row with Bonjour”) as the beginning of a wireless media initiative, Apple almost underplayed the fact that it’s just created the first easy way to spool video content from your iTunes Music Library to a distant television set. Connect a Mac mini to your TV and home stereo system, turn wireless sharing on, and all of the content in your iTunes library is available to be watched on the TV.

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Why not play this up more? Maybe Apple wants to avoid comparisons with Microsoft’s Media Centers, which haven’t exactly taken off. Perhaps there are other, more important elements of its media strategy, yet to be unveiled. Or perhaps the price tag is to blame. Now that the Mac mini starts at $599, you’ll need to cough up at least that much to watch your computer’s video on a TV, versus $129 to listen to its audio on a stereo connected wirelessly with AirPort Express. That’s the reason most Apple watchers have been expecting an updated video-ready AirPort Express 2 for months; by comparison with that technology, which is certainly feasible, Front Row with Bonjour appears to be a baby step in the right direction.

What do you guys and gals think: what’s the next announcement you hope Apple will make? A new iPod? New accessories? A home media center experience? A tablet? Something else? How did you feel about today’s news? We’re looking forward to your comments.

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