Apple's iPod Refresh & iTunes Ping
As usual, every fall Apple debuts a new line of iPods to wow the kids and parents into getting new iPods. And, of course, this year was no exception. On Wednesday, September 1st, Steve Jobs and many from the Apple crew showed the press their latest products at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco, CA. And as expected, the iPods were updated with cooler, newer features and a couple other new products were announced as well.
One thing that was a bit more off the normal was that, the night before the event, Apple announced that they would be live streaming the video of the event to people around the world. At first, I immediately declared Apple crazy for endeavoring to do this because they stopped live streaming these types of events years ago because they couldn't handle the demand for millions of people trying to view the stream at the same time. However, before the event started, I found out that Apple had cleverly limited the persons who could view the live stream to Mac owners with the latest version of Mac OS X and iPhones and iPads. There are still millions upon millions who could watch this if they wanted, but it's definitely much less people than anyone who has a computer and may want to watch it. For example, I was at work where I use a PC so I could only stream the video over my iPhone. In the end, the streaming did work surprisingly well and did pretty well of keeping up even as I walked from WiFi to 3G and back during my lunch break. (It wasn't perfect, though; a couple times I had to restart the stream or the bandwidth cut so low that it went to audio-only.) It was still a pretty impressive demo of what Apple can do with QuickTime and some really fast, well-equipped servers and it was nice to see the actual video live instead of just reading a bunch of blogs that were posting text and images live.
After a couple bits about the sales numbers, some beautiful new Apple Stores and a number of minor updates to iPhone and iPad software, Steve Jobs got down to announcing the latest new iPod products. First up was the iPod shuffle. The last iPod shuffle had no buttons on the device and only a couple controls on the headphones. The new iPod shuffle has the basic play/pause, next/previous and volume buttons in a familiar circular format on one side and a clip much like an earlier iPod shuffle, but it also features the audio-based controls of the last shuffle as well. It's a bit smaller than the earlier shuffles with the control buttons and has more storage and starts at only $49. This is the basic low-end product with a great basic feature set.
This time around, the iPod nano is not much bigger than the iPod shuffle but it forfeits some of the features of the previous iPod nanos. Gone is the ability to play videos and the camera to take photos and videos with your iPod nano. The new nano sports a small form factor with a clip on the back and a 1.5-inch screen that is controlled by touch just like the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Despite being small, this bright, detailed full-color display easily lets you browse your music and playlists. Also, the iPod nano includes other minor features, including volume buttons, a built-in FM tuner that can pause and rewind up to 15 minutes of the radio, Nike+ integration, Genius mixes and customizable menus. It doesn't have all the old features of the old iPod nano, but it has some great new features and is the smallest iPod nano yet. This device starts at $149 for 8GB of music and may be the hot new stocking stuffer this Christmas (at least that's what they say; I definitely don't get $150 gifts in my stocking and that's fine).
The biggest, best device of the iPod touch, of course, and it got a nice update today as well. As Steve Jobs said, the iPod touch is like an iPhone without the phone part or a contract to pay a phone company a bunch of money. And thus, the new iPod touch includes the majority of the features of the iPhone 4. The beautiful Retina Display is there to display video in resolutions close to 720p. Also, the back camera will shoot photos and video up to 720p as well, although the camera doesn't seem to be as good of quality as the camera in the iPhone 4. And on the front side of the iPod touch there's also a low-resolution video camera so you can use the iPod touch for FaceTime, Apple's new video chat standard. Steve Jobs also remarked that the iPod touch sells more units than the Nintendo and Playstation portable devices combined and touted the touch as a big gaming platform. (In that vein, Apple will be releasing next week an app to iPhone and iPod touch called "GameCenter" that promotes playing multiplayer online games with your friends and manages game points and achievements as well.) And, of course, it runs the majority of the thousands of apps made for the iPhone, which makes it a powerful computer in the palm of your hand. The iPod touch is easily better than ever and starts at $229 for 8 GB and goes up to $399 for 64 GB.
There is one more iPod that was not mentioned at all in the presentation: the iPod classic. This old-style iPod has all the look and basic audio and video playback functions of the iPods of yesteryear and a 160 GB hard drive to allow the music collectors such as myself the ability to take their whole library on the go. I do look forward to the day when I can replace the iPod classic with a 128 GB iPod touch or iPhone, but until then, this works great for bringing all my media on the go and will continue to be sold for the foreseeable future to fill that purpose.
The other major announcement was the announcement of the release of iTunes 10. The tenth version of the long-running free music and media software features a slightly new look that some say make it look more friendly to touch-based computing and may point to the future of Macs including some touch-based screens but most just say it looks unlike anything else on the Mac or PC and therefore just looks out of place. (The icon was also changed and just looks generic and cartoon-ish.) The only other feature is a new social network centered around music and music purchasing called "Ping". Basically, it adds a bit of Facebook to the iTunes Music Store, as users can create a profile and feature music they like to friends. Their friends or followers can view a feed of iTunes music purchases as well as items in the store they've marked as "Liked". Friends can post comments on the posts and, of course, it's easy to buy the music featured in Ping since the entire social network is inside the store itself. With this and other features, Ping is a social network with a small set of features but will most likely become rather big rather quickly due to the fact that it's built into the iTunes music player software used by 160 million people around the world. For example, in just about 24 hours since the Ping service was widely available, 121,000+ Ping users are now following Lady GaGa's posts and activity on the service.
Actually, Lady GaGa brings me to the current major shortcomings of Ping that need to be overcome ASAP. Katy Perry, U2, Muse and a couple dozen other bands from major labels join GaGa as the "artists" on Ping and they can post photos and videos from tours. However, it seems no other artists or bands know how they can create an artist profile. Due to this, initial users of the system are finding it very limited because they really cannot find artists they like to follow on Ping. And as far as I can find, there is no documentation that explains how artists or labels can get artist pages that they can post to. With a system like Ping that is being adopted so quickly, artists immediately need a way to get involved and if Apple does not fix this shortly, people are going to be quickly bored with Ping. I expect this should be fixed in the next couple days because Apple usually fixes a problem of this caliber pretty quickly. That is, unless they are just doing Ping to cater to the major labels and they decide to only give the majors access -- that would be terrible.
The final announcement from the Apple event was the 2nd generation of the Apple TV. The new Apple TV is a rounded black box that is not much bigger than a hockey puck and brings all kinds of Internet and Apple-related content to your HDTV. With the new Apple TV (or your computer), you can now rent some TV shows in HD for as little as 99 cents per episode (currently only if the show runs on ABC or FOX; hopefully more networks later). The Apple TV includes no hard drive storage and instead relies on streaming data from the Internet or another computer on the home network. In fact, the announced an expansion to the AirTunes feature that lets you stream audio to another set of speakers in the house such that it's now called AirPlay and in November you will be able to stream videos or audio from your iPad or iPhone to the Apple TV display as well. And, like every other Internet-connected device that plugs into your TV today, it connects to Netflix to stream video from there as well (if you are a Netflix subscriber). One minor difference is that Apple got this version of Netflix to run with an Apple TV-style look to it and Steve Jobs calls it "the best interface for Netflix." Oh yeah, and the Apple TV is now priced at only $99, which may be low enough of a price for people to want to get one this Christmas.
Overall, this Apple event had some big announcements, but none of them really blew me away or surprised me that much. None of these am I planning on buying anytime in the future, at least not for myself. On the other hand, the September event is never really the place for the ground-breaking new products; it's just to show off the mass-market electronics for everyone, not the next big thing in computing and media. As long as Apple's still going, though, we can expect more ground-breaking new products in the New Year.