13 October 2005

After the curtains closed

(in relation to Apple's announcement on 12th Oct)

Well, I'm feeling quite good about my predictions this time. I've usually got many things way wrong, but this time I think my predictions were pretty accurate.

Let's deal with what I didn't get right.
1. I didn't forecast the iMac changes. But I understand why they chose this machine rather than release the pro-machines at such an event. This event had the eyes and ears of the world (and therefore switchers). The machine Apple would like people to switch to is the iMac. The faithful may be more interested in Powerbooks and Powermacs, but many of them aren't interested in iPods. For them (me too), I still think there'll be new Powerbooks in the next 2 weeks - and maybe Powermacs too. So, the iMac announcement was a pleasant surprise. Nothing earth-shattering but it gets some extra features all at the same price with a slightly smaller enclosure. I'm not sure about built-in iSight - I occasionally move mine around to give people other views of where I am - can't do that very easily with a fixed one. But then, heh, it's free!

2. My "finale" suggestion - rather tongue-in-cheek - of Madonna on stage with a pink iPod was also not correct. But I did note that Madonna's entire(?) video collection is on the store, and publicised heavily. I wouldn't discount a Special Edition version of the iPod either before Christmas to coincide with the release of her next album. Also note the gap now the U2 iPod is discontinued. Anyhow, a pink Madonna iPod is not for me!

On the iPod front, I'm pretty pleased with what I predicted. I had perhaps expected 80GB version for the top end. But then, the reduced size of the 60GB version more than makes up for that (I'm sure an 80GB isn't far away). I think it's great what they've crammed in. It's also very conservative really - as predicted. This is, first of all, the next generation music iPod - bigger screen and a few other features (30GB at lower end) that just happens to do video too, and at the same price as the old models AND in a smaller package. Can't argue too much with that. I predicted Steve would not trumpet them as full blown iPod videos - it's just an extra feature they've added - much like the first mobiles that had a digital camera. Having just bought a nano (though offered that to my better half), I now have more incentive to consider a new top end iPod rather than a second nano. If I'm typical (and I'm not) then that would indicate they've done enough to re-invigorate the top end models.

I'm also pleased with predictions of the content - the music videos and TV programmes in particular. I never thought there would be full blown movies - I don't think we're ready for that in all sorts of ways. I did perhaps think there might be special video podcasts - eg news, weather, available free. But maybe they'll come along (I think there's room for them in the current menu structure). I'm also pleased with the price point with one big exception I'll come back to. I felt £1.50-£2 would be doable. In the US, at $1.99, I think that's excellent though again with the same caveat I'm about to come to.

Clearly, they've focused on getting some content out there, and also providing it in a way that can be used FIRST in the home, and second on the go. The content isn't just for the iPod, but the iPod gives you the flexibility to view that content on the go. I also understand (but haven't tried it) that it should be possible to move recordings from, say, EyeTV to the iPod. So that's good too.

I had also predicted (though this was at the higher end of my prediction) the Airport Express 2 device. In fact we didn't get this, but we did get a Universal Dock with remote control. In essence this does much of what I had said, but is tethered to the computer OR to the TV/HiFi and requires physical connection to a source (eg the iPod). I think something that allowed the computer to play the video THROUGH the TV remotely would have been really cool. Maybe we didn't get that today because it's too much to take in? Or perhaps they needed something big for MacWorld in January? Or perhaps they really need 802.11n to settle to make it a workable solution? But really this device is just a Universal Dock with an Airport Express component. It shouldn't be too hard, and it shouldn't be too far away.

I'm not sure where they're going is EXACTLY where I personally would like them to go. I still don't see a family or a couple sitting in front of an iMac for couch-potato like (in)activity. And in my case I still prefer something more like the mini as the answer for my needs. But then in all reality I'm still on the bleeding edge of this use.

So after all this, what is there NOT to like?

Well, actually quite a few things. Mostly (hopefully?) fixable.

The biggest disappointment for me is the resolution of the video. I would snap up a lot of the music videos IF they were of DVD-quality (I don't need HD for these, yet). And ideally, I'd liked to have had them with 5.1 sound as on the DVD itself. I haven't tried them yet (I had problems using the store right after the announcement), so maybe they'll look better on my plasma than I expect. But I would have liked the option of having a higher resolution version for home use, and either conversion or a low-res stereo version for mobile use. I know there are issues with bandwidth here. But, I'm not going to buy these things even at the attractive US price point of $1.99 when I can get much better with a DVD off Amazon. I'll limit my use (if at all) to one-offs much like I buy the odd single off iTMS.

The next disappointment relates to the UK market. The videos here are £1.89 - admittedly within my initial price point. But then I had expected them to be full SD or ED resolution. I'm particularly disappointed that the price gap between singles and videos on UK iTMS is £1.10, when it's $1.00 in the US. Take the VAT off, and do some exchange rate calcs, and this difference is very substantial. I expect we're seeing the hands of the greedy labels again (what a pity as they usually get nothing from music videos - just publicity. At that price and quality they'll continue to get nothing!).

Also for the UK market there are no TV programmes available. Given the location of the UK announcement (BBC headquarters) I'd thought this was the obvious outcome. I suspect it will come, but I'd hoped for something (or a mention). Given the BBC doesn't do adverts and has already got a license fee from us, I might also hope that either they will cost a lot less here (for a low res version) or even be free to UK iTMS users. I'm sure US users would be happy to pay $1.99 for their BBC Office episodes.

Another gripe with the announcement is that they've just provided the FrontRow application on new iMacs as best I can see. Why can't I get this for my mini? Why couldn't I run this on another Mac? I could use my Bluetooth remote control for this on any Mac. I suspect this is designed as a way to incentivise people to buy iLife06 when it comes out next year.

I'm also slightly disappointed with the complete omission of Firewire. But I guess this was inevitable. Most users do not value this, so making it a part of the device would just reduce margins for apple, and even perhaps make it bigger. Unlike others though I'm not disappointed with the video DRM. I understand why burning a DVD would be an issue. I don't think I need this, though I would need backup capability (which I think can be done).

Some might say the iPod video should have been even more adventurous? Wide screen aspect ratio and a bigger screen for instance? But to do much of this would have changed the iPod significantly and presented the challenge of how to have a scrollwheel on a horizontal device (or a device that allowed rotation). Given 10% left handers, I think a right-sided scrollwheel would have got a few complaints too. And of course an appropriate battery would have made the device much bigger. But I think time will solve these. If the demand is there, Apple will jump in with something more serious. But for now, you've got a MUCH better top end music iPod in a smaller package at the same price that happens to do video. There'll be more things that come along that make use of that bigger screen and/or video capability.

So, I think overall it was a very positive announcement - worthy of the hype. The iPod range has gone from looking a bit stale to being very exciting and at the forefront again in just 6 weeks. The content deals are interesting and hopefully just the start. The simplicity of the whole will again be compelling - especially to the real public rather than the geeks. But I think there'll be a lot of people who were happy to buy compressed music but that will not buy video in such a degraded form. For Steve's next trick(s) I'd like to see that weakness addressed, I'd like a lot more content deals - esp. internationally, and I'd like to have the content moved wirelessly around from computer to TV for those times when you do just want to slouch on the sofa.

Anyone want to offer their thoughts, or are you all fed up with it by now!

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