Apple is, at least most of the time, a global company. With the exception of the original iPhone, the products it produces are intended for sale across as many territories as possible, rather than just one or two countries. So when we heard yesterday from iFun.de that Amazon.com’s German division was unexpectedly listing a 4GB fourth-generation iPod nano, we knew that there were only two possible scenarios.

(a) Amazon was mistaken, or

(b) Apple had produced a bunch of 4GB fourth-generation iPod nanos before realizing that it needed to boost storage capacities, and decided to try and quietly sell off the units outside of the United States.

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Why would Apple ever do that? As we’ve said before, the company likes to portray itself as unconcerned about Microsoft’s Zunes or other competing products, but in reality, the iPod family can’t fall considerably behind its competitors without risking loss of market share. So when Microsoft preps a 16GB, $200 flash-based Zune, Apple has two choices: let it happen, or get a 16GB, $200 flash-based iPod nano out there, too. And when Microsoft upgrades its $250, 80GB hard disk player to a $250, 120GB model, lo and behold the iPod classic goes in the same direction. If you’re wondering why there was a lag in stores between the 8GB nanos and 16GB nanos becoming available, here’s the probable answer: the 16GB ones started production later. Much later.

 

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The existence of the 4GB fourth-generation iPod nano strongly suggests that Microsoft’s new 16GB Zune—the announcement of which was scheduled to overlap Apple’s event in San Francisco—truly caught Apple by surprise. Clearly, there were enough 4GB nanos manufactured that Apple couldn’t just give them away to employees, or alternately scrap them, recycling the cases and circuit boards. Yet there’s no mention on Apple’s web site—even in Europe—that this model exists, and they’re only available from third-party retailers overseas. The asking price of 129 Euros is, not coincidentally, as modest a step down as Microsoft has taken with its 4GB Zune from its $150 8GB model.

So, Zune haters, you might want to say a quiet thanks to Microsoft this holiday season. If it wasn’t for the competition, you might not have gotten that $199 16GB iPod nano until next year…