Apple’s Big Music Announcement

September 1, 2010 (US time) Apple announced changes to their suite of iPod products, iTunes, iOS and AppleTV.

iPods

It’s crazy how small and thin these things are becoming. Also crazy Apple have kept the Shuffle when the new Nano is almost the same size.

iPod Shuffle

Not much to say about the shuffle other than its existence is purely a price-point decision. With the Nano starting at AU$199 they needed to keep around a less expensive model. The buttons however have re-appeared with the previous shuffle not finding favour as a voice-operated only device. Available in a range of colours, just 2GB for AU$69.

iPod Nano

To me the iPod Nano is a disappointment. Harsh I know, but it cost $20 more than it did before starting at AU$199 and has less features. It no longer plays, nor captures, video. A calculated decision, I believe, to drive sales of the new iPod Touch.

Some will argue that as it now has multi-touch and apps it’s an improved product but I disagree. The old Nano was a great product for younger teens. The kids who’d go skateboarding with their friends and want to record their adventures on a robust, small device that could easily survive a small drop and the odd scrape. They could instantly playback the movies to wow their friends. But alas no more. The only option is now the iPod Touch (considerably more breakable) or the iPhone (also breakable and more costly).

Sure the iPod Nano is cute and “wearable” with its clip, but for me it’s a big “meh!” moment. At present you can’t install new apps for it, you just have the ones it comes preinstalled with.

Maybe I am being too harsh. It will be a great device for those who don’t want to run with their iPod Touch, iPhone or other arm-banded device. It comes with a clock app, photos app, iPod app, Nike+, Pedometer and FM Radio. And with either 8GB (AU$199) or 16GB (AU$289) it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than my first generation iPod which cost me just over AU$1,000 for 5GB and all the first gen did was play songs.

The line up comes in seven colours including the Product Red version.

iPod Touch

It catches up, as it always does, in many ways to the iPhone. Now with retina high-density display the screen will look amazing. It also comes with front and rear facing cameras so it can be used for high-defition 720 video recording and FaceTime (over wi-fi). It also features the 5MP camera on the back which on my iPhone takes amazing pictures for what it is. Perfect for capturing incidental images.

Other than that the iPod Touch is now even thinner than its predecessors, which just seems insanely unlikely, but true. Just look at the pictures on the Apple website, the volume buttons barely fit on the thing.

Starting at AU$289 (8GB) sales of this one will be helped by the removal of the camera and video capabilities of the iPod Nano. Not that the iPod Touch needs a lot of help to sell, recently being announced as one of the highest selling mobile game platforms.

One weird thing is its capacities are 8GB, then jumping to 32GB (AU$378) and 63GB (AU$499), with the higher range surpassing the iPhones upper limit of 32GB.

iTunes 10

With no real improvements in the application’s functionality, some little things have changed. The interface has changed, for the better I think, but the jury is out on that one. The change of the icon from a music note on a CD has changed to be a music note on a blue button like circle. Steve Jobs firmly stating that music isn’t about the physical media like CDs anymore. I’m not a fan of the new icon, but mainly just because it no longer looks like the icons for the other applications from the iLife Suite, which is where iTunes began its life many, many years ago.

The real changes with iTunes come in the store with the launch of “Ping” a social music service allowing you to follow artists and friends  and to follow along with their purchases, the albums they like and the reviews they post. You can comment on their actions and listen to previews of the music they like. I guess it’s more of a recommendation engine and perhaps a way to try and capture the elusive ‘tween to 20’s market, the later of which in particular are not used to paying for music, more often then not stealing their music via torrents and even content with ripping music from YouTube videos.

I’m not sure how important Ping is just yet. I think its implementation is clunky and needs some refinement, that better happen soon before everyone gets over it, which happens real quick these days. Really they should have just let you connect your Twitter feed to your iTunes Ping. People are already following their artists there. They then could have sent our purchases, reviews etc to our Twitter feeds (if we allowed it via preferences) and already established social connections, rather than try and create a whole new set.

I think Apple’s big problem on this front is their 160 million users. Most social networking APIs1 would crumble if hit by an additional 160 million users. Ping actually launched with Facebook Connect (Facebook’s API) only to have it removed a short time after as Facebook had blocked Apple’s access. Facebook claims this was because they couldn’t handle the additional traffic, that a lot of their currently 500 million users would have iTunes accounts and that all the additional traffic would be a burden. I speculate it was more because Facebook was concerned about Apple entering their social networking space. They need not have worried. Ping is nowhere near where it needs to be if it wants to be a serious social network contender.

Apple TV

The final announcement of the day, was the reintroduction of the product Steve Jobs refers to as his “hobby” appliance: The Apple TV.

David and I own an Apple TV, the 160GB version and it’s freaking awesome. We love having it and I never understood why it never had a greater take-up. It might have been the expense. It might have been because people didn’t want yet another box connected to their TV. It may really have been that all of the content you wanted to put on there had to be encoded Apple’s way or no play. This means that all video has to be in  MP4 format, rather than something like DIVX, AVI or MPG (previously more common formats). I suspect that this last is the main reason as people who prefer to download their movies and tv shows prefer an easy way to watch it back on the big screen; Apple TV isn’t the device for the lazy.

We download TV, I admit it. Over time I’ve grown annoyed by the lack of support for Sci-fi shows, by Australian networks inability to stick to a schedule, their penchant for moving things from 7.30pm on a Tuesday night to 11pm Saturday at the drop of a hat, but mostly their skill at making us wait up-to a year for a great TV show, or not showing it in Australia at all. We even pay for the service and would happily pay for a subscription to a more legitimate source were one available to us here in Australia.

For us to watch downloaded TV, at present, means downloading the video files in rar format with one program (like Transmission), unrarring the file using another application (like unrar-x), encoding the file from the AVI, DIVX or other file format into Apple’s preferred MP4 using yet another application (like VisualHub – which is no longer made) before it is finally moved to iTunes and synced over to the Apple TV where it is stored for viewing. Sounds like a hassle right? But to us this has become the norm so it’s not really a problem.

But enough about old times: on to the new, second generation, Apple TV, a veritable hockey puck of entertainment.

Apple TV

At about a quarter of the size of the previous Apple TV, the new AppleTV is a tiny little box, heck the remote is bigger than the Apple TV is.

For the most part the functions of the new Apple TV are the same as the first generation with one massive difference. The new Apple TV has no storage ability. No HDD included in the unit means all of your content will stream wirelessly (or via ethernet) to the device.

The Apple TV still has the movie store (but now only for rentals of movies and TV episodes), still has iTunes, the ability to watch YouTube, view your Flickr, MobileMe or iPhoto-shared photo galleries and now also features NetFlix streaming for the USA residents who subscribe to that service.

They’re also touting “Airplay” which replaces “AirTunes” for media sharing. One feature of AirPlay is the ability to immediately share your content from all of your devices to the Apple TV. Say you’re watching a movie on your iPad while your sitting outside, or in the bath but you come into your lounge room, you can now “send” that movie to your TV; streaming it from your iPad to the Apple TV for viewing. The only shame about AirPlay is it that it doesn’t seem to allow sharing via other devices to each other. For instance I can’t watch movies on my iPad from my iMac unless I sync the movie over, I’d much prefer to be able to watch the movie’s remotely with AirPlay.

Apple TV - The Hockey Puck of entertainment

At just AU$129 the Apple TV is cheap as chips and might open the market to more people. The announcement falls a little short however of what some of us developers were hoping to see. And with the removal of storage I’m guessing our hope of an app-capable Apple TV is never going to be.

I know I and other developers were hoping for an Apple TV that would allow us to write applications for the device. For TV shows to be delivered by Application. Each show being a single application on your Apple TV and other applications built in or build by developers. I had hoped that Apple’s Magic Trackpad was to be the user input device for the new Apple TV but my hopes and dreams have been dashed.

Also dashed is our current Apple TV, by all accounts it sounds like its life is over with Apple no longer producing updates for the device.

Final Thing: iOS 4.1 & 4.2

This wasn’t Apple’s “One more thing…”, that was the Apple TV, but iOS 4.1 and 4.2 were mentioned throughout the event but not really singled out as their own thing. There aren’t a lot of big changes in 4.1 (available now for your iPhone and iPod Touch – excluding first generations of both), the little things are Ping being added to the iTunes Store on the device and the Camera App’s ability to capture HDR2 photos. And of course 4.2 is the iOS that will be coming to the iPad at the end of November 2010, bringing the iPad multi-tasking, folders and other items that are already available on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

The Wrap

That’s one big blog post, haven’t written such a big one in quite some time, but you know how I love my Apple products. Apple haven’t revolutionised anything in these announcements. Made one bad decision (in my opinion) by removing the camera/video recording from the iPod Nano and some good decisions like the low-priced Apple TV. Other than curiosity (the new Nano) and the desire to add to my collection I can’t see myself getting any of the devices released today, except maybe the new Apple TV when ours reaches the end of its natural life.

1 – Application Programming Interface – how coders can easily connect to other people’s applications for the purpose of extending their own application or adding to the user experience of the application offering the API.
2 – The process of capturing several images of the exact same scene and tone mapping them, ensuring a more even exposure across the whole photo, rather than dark shadows or blown out skies.

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