Preliminary Review of the New Apple Products

Apple held their usual September announcement, focusing primarily on entertainment, specifically the iPod and Apple TV. While I haven’t had a chance to see the new products in person (I have ordered a couple of them), there are some things about them that stand out.

The iOS Updates

The changes in iOS 4.1 looking interesting, but the one I’m really looking forward to is iOS 4.2, specifically bringing the iPad up to date with the iPhone and iPod touch. As a user, I am looking forward to the folders, more than anything else. I use them now on my iPhone to group apps and keep them organized.

The bigger thing for me as a developer is that I can finally stop the “oh, iOS 3.2 doesn’t support that” which was forcing me to either work around missing features or ignore them altogether. Granted, you still have to worry about other missing features (presence or absence of cameras, GPS, etc), but having to support 2 different versions of the operating system is something I’ll be glad to move away from.

The iPods

The iPod updates are generally pretty cool. Removing the controls from the iPod Shuffle was a bit of a mistake in my opinion, and seeing them back on the device is a welcome addition. The iPod Nano looks interesting, but what was intriguing is what features got removed, specifically video playback and the camera. I’m not sure why Apple bothered with the camera on the Nano (it was the wrong device for it in my opinion). Removing the video playback, though, may hurt the device a bit. My son has an older Nano, and uses it to watch videos while on driving trips. His only option now would be to buy an iPod Touch (which he wants anyways), but that means he no longer has a low-cost option for music and video playback. The Nano has basically become an iPod Shuffle with better playback control and other features. It doesn’t seem to be as nice a bridge between the Shuffle and the Touch the way it used to be.

The new iPod Touch is very, very interesting, by far the most compelling of the changes. It finally gets the camera it really should have had last year. The addition of FaceTime is fascinating, and how that affects services like Skype will be interesting to watch. It has become, as Steve mentioned during the presentation, an iPhone without the phone. It’s still missing the GPS receiver (a bit of an oversight in my opinion) and the compass, but with the new display, the front and back facing cameras, the 3-axis gyro and accelerometer, it continues to advance the state of the art in portable entertainment devices. Allowing up to 64GB of storage also starts to make it useful for people with larger iTunes libraries, although for those with truly massive libraries, it will likely still fall short. However, those don’t represent the mainstream user base.

The note about the iPod Touch now being the largest platform for gaming should get Nintendo and Sony to sit up and pay attention. The presence of mainstream games from studios like EA, plus a host of other games not available on other platforms, shows that the iPod Touch is in the big leagues. Add to it access to the largest on-line store for music and video, plus the ability to add productivity apps into the mix, means the iPod Touch does more than the Nintendo DSi or the Sony Playstation Portable can do. Nintendo in the past has tried to minimize the iPod Touch (and now iPad) as a competitor, but I think that doing so is short-sighted. That same attitude was prevalent at Sony when the Wii was released. They were convinced that the Playstation franchise was essentially untouchable, but when you look at the number of units moved, the Wii is clearly dominating the console landscape. Nintendo used to own the portable gaming market, with the Gameboy and the follow-on DS family, but that no longer appears to be the case. The PSP is a nice device (and I prefer it over the DS myself), but it was never really a competitor to Nintendo. The iPod Touch has grown to be a force in the handheld gaming market.

AppleTV

This may finally be the bridge between the TV and the computer-based digital libraries that exist today. I looked at the original Apple TV, but to get what I really wanted (easy playback in real HD from my iTunes library on my desktop), a Mac Mini or some kind of small form-factor Windows PC was really a better answer. Even then, it would be a bit complicated for the rest of the family to use. The new Apple TV’s functionality is what I’ve been looking for to bridge between the home theatre and my iTunes desktop/laptop environment.

The other items on the Apple TV that may look innocuous enough, but are actually noteworthy, are the size and the lack of a power brick or wall wart. If you look at most modern home electronics, they simply have a power cord out of the back, and the power supply is built inside. It may not seem like much, but deviating from that makes products stand out, and in a bad way. The small form factor (and the switch to the black case) will help a lot in that regard, because the unit won’t stand out.

The last element of the Apple TV that is striking is the price: at US$99 (CDN$119), it makes it an easy buy (and yes, I’ve ordered one for myself). The usage during the demo looked pretty simple, and if the setup is equally easy, then Apple should move a lot of them.

What was interesting during Steve’s presentation was the almost deprecating way he spoke about the original Apple TV. Reading between the lines, it was clearly an experiment to see what the market might or might not want. Calling it a “hobby” definitely provides some context about how Apple viewed the device, and set the expectations for it pretty low to start. In some ways, Apple took the right approach, releasing something and then using it as a vehicle to gather opinions and feedback. Unlike so may of their other products, Apple didn’t seem to expect the original Apple TV to really change the world. The newest Apple TV does look set to make an impression.

What Does This Mean?

In the end, these changes should mean 2 things. First, Apple will continue as the juggernaut of the portable entertainment world. Clearly the iPods are important to them, and the flagship iPod Touch continues to keep pace with its iPhone brethren. I’m not sure that the Nano will do as well as it has in the past, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it drop from the line up, leaving just the Shuffle for music-only use, and the iPod Touch for “everything else”.

Second, the Apple TV may be “the real deal” in bringing some form of computing into the living room. If it is truly as simple to setup and use and it looked during the demo, I could see many, many non-technical people getting one. The low price makes it an even easier sell. The Apple TV no longer looks like a hobby, and looks like it should do well.

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