Yes, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a Backstage entry, and though there are a number of reasons for this, suffice to say that there’s nothing we’ve wanted to post here for a while – hence the relative quiet.
To make up for that, today’s three entries are going to be sort of interesting, touching on a few perennial Backstage topics: this one contains iPod & iTunes predictions for the early part of this year, the second has gadget and iPod-related details from my recent Asia trip that were left out of the official iLounge reports, and the third entry contains some personal (non-iPod) things that came up during the 12 days of adventuring. They’re probably all worth reading, but this one’s the most topical, focusing on next-generation video accessories and content. Click on Read More for the details.
First, the predictions. One of the things we think has the potential to be a huge deal this year is the next evolution of iPod accessories: video docks and related items. We’ve known for a while that multiple companies were working on next-generation evolutions of the old-fashioned Apple Dock, 2003’s little white mounting accessory that was updated with video-out in 2004 and a “universal” set of iPod adapters in 2005. Full specs for one of the new third-party docks are already floating around on the Internet, but suffice to say that the most interesting and conceivably major twist is this: on-screen menuing, specifically, iPod directory browsing.
Why would this matter? Well, there’s currently no way to drop an iPod into a dock and navigate its menus from a distance, a problem that’s especially acute if you want to watch videos on a TV, but also isn’t great for either photos or music. If you want to watch Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice video, then skip to an episode of The Office, you need to walk over to the iPod and change clips manually. The same holds true if you want to pick individual songs from the iPod. But imagine if your iPod’s menus could be duplicated – actually, rendered even better – on a TV. These accessories accomplish this feat in roughly the same way that Harman Kardon’s Drive + Play and Monster’s iCruze have done with low-resolution LCD screens, only now with television-formatted output. Imagine DLO’s HomeDock, but with actually useful remote navigation of your photo and video collections, similar to Apple’s Front Row.
Now think about the next possible evolution of this concept: iPod-specific dockable AV systems or televisions. One of the biggest growth areas for the iPod in 2005 was dockable speaker systems, which became more and more impressive after Bose released the SoundDock in late 2004. Now imagine an inMotion iM7-style speaker and television system with an integrated iPod dock, using really cool on-screen menus and Apple-inspired designs. No one has announced such a device yet, but it would make some sense as an evolution of current products.
Well, sort of. An iPod video dock with menus could attach to any TV, and even with the right remote control would sell for less than $100. There are some people – probably many people – who wouldn’t pay that much for the feature, but as with HomeDock, some might. But add an additional dedicated monitor and speakers to that, and the prices become sort of crazy. Actually, more than sort of crazy if you realize that the screen will need to be much bigger than the iPod’s in order to be of any real value as an add-on. You’d need to be a specific sort of company (one with great industrial design and engineering skills in the AV market) to convince people that all that money was worth spending. Even then, an iPod dockable TV might well wind up as one of those interesting footnotes (like Sharp’s Nintendo Famicom/NES television sets) that people hear about but don’t buy.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens with this with third-party developers, but we’re guessing that Apple will not pour its own resources into super-expensive, nichey items like this in 2006. These days, the company focuses on mainstream solutions, and we’d bet that it’ll primarily focus on alternate ways to bring iPod (and iTunes) content to televisions and AV systems, with an AirPort Express-like streaming solution for video, and so on. We’re also strongly of the belief that some huge TV (and other) content partnerships are in the offing right now. All the majors were already testing the waters with iTunes podcasts at the time when Apple announced its video deal with ABC, and now that NBC is on board with a bunch of shows (and planning more, like the sure-to-be-huge Saturday Night Live), companies like HBO are publicly chomping at the bit to put shows like The Sopranos on iTunes. Could the Super Bowl and other sports-related programming be far off?
Our big questions on this, of course, remain pricing and video quality. On the topic of quality, it won’t be worthwhile to stream junky low-res video to our TVs, or even watch it on our computer monitors, but we’re becoming increasingly optimistic after downloading NBC’s first two seasons of The Office from iTunes recently. Sure, the files didn’t seem to be tagged properly, but the video looked pretty good on a 15” PowerBook screen, and TV quality on the iPod. The dealbreaker now is going to be pricing. SNL episodes make some sense at $1.99 a pop. They make no sense at $1.99 (or even $.99 for that matter) per skit, as NBC has been testing with Conan O’Brien, or worse yet, DVD pricing for “Best Of” collections. We’re huge SNL fans, but if the prices for the next generation of TV downloads continue to pop our eyes, we’re buying a cheap hardware MPEG encoder with TV tuning (say, El Gato’s EyeTV), and that’ll be the end of it.
What else could be coming for the iPod in 2006? The next Backstage entry, which we’ve placed below this one, discusses a few of the interesting possibilities we discovered over in Asia but didn’t mention in our earlier reports. Read on for our thoughts.