06 October 2005


Time for another impending Apple announcement to get the faithful all hot, bothered and dissing each other. So, time for speculation here too! (250 word limit out the window for this post).

First off, the announcement invitation (you've got to interpret these carefully) shows a set of rich red velvety curtains; the event is taking place in a theatre, and it says "One more thing...". That is a reference to the way Steve keeps the BIG announcement till last when he does a keynote.

So, this announcement will be significant. The symbolism of the curtains and location should not be underestimated (the iPod nano announcement showed a pair of jeans, but the key was to focus on the CHANGE pocket on the jeans).

I'm more certain of this symbolism after hearing what I think is a gaffe from our very own BBC in announcing that Apple is to unveil a video iPod at the BBC Television Centre on the same day. It also mentions availability of video bundles from the iTunes music store from that date. This was broadcast in the news section on BBC6 on Wednesday 5th.

So, the stage is set for the release of the video iPod. Or is it? After all, hasn't Steve Jobs dismissed such a device on numerous occasions? How can people watch a movie on such a small screen? What about battery life? Heh, the nano's just been released, and Apple isn't going to want to dampen enthusiasm for that, are they? It's just not going to work, and nobody will want one.

Here's what I think will happen, and what I think might happen.

There WILL be announcements of new hardware - either Powerbooks (my favourite guess due to extended delivery times, and age of current line) or Powermacs (dual core versions). Possibly both.

However, even both of these is not sufficient to warrant such an event. Perhaps if they were the first Intel macs, maybe. But there is no way that will happen yet. In fact, perhaps Apple will not even mention these upgrades at this event, and release them more quietly? Now, for what might happen...

We're back with the iPod. Here again, a larger capacity 4th generation iPod is not itself sufficient for the scale of this announcement. Something different and distinguishing is required - I'm sure that the larger iPods just look a bit uninviting for many people now compared with the nano. The primary reason for the larger device is capacity, and the vast majority of users do not have collections bigger than a large nano. So, how to boost demand again for the more expensive, higher margin devices? The clue has to be in the BBC announcement if you believe it.

I don't think Apple is going to release an iPod that can play 2 hour movies. Apart from the lack of suitable technology, there are all sorts of problems to be solved with the content providers, and there is the question of demand. Do you know anyone who is going to watch a 2 hour movie on a small screen in one sitting?

I would guess that a lot of iPod usage is for relatively short durations - first thing in the morning and at the end of the day during commuting hours. If video capability comes to the iPod it will be targeted at this usage first. iTMS already has music videos. There could easily be an expansion of this part of the service - and a way to get people to pay more for their singles and pre-release material. There is a massive collection of made-for-MTV videos created as well. I'm not the first to suggest this. I know Charles Arthur suggested this some time back on his blog but I'm damned if I can find it in his archive section. I would pay for some music videos this way (though not necessarily only in a small screen format).

The next level up from this would be video podcasts. A sort of Tivo-2-go service. As you head off for work, you pick up your iPod out of its dock, pre-loaded with your chosen excerpts from TV - a 5 minute news broadcast, weather, sports report, for which you'd set up subscriptions in iTunes. You don't sit in front of your TV waiting for the items to come when THEY want you to see them. You get the news as YOU want it WHEN you want it. Now, I can see why some TV stations may not like this. But I could see why the BBC (and in the US, NPR) might consider this quite exciting (as public service broadcasters). And I wonder if this is an angle for the BBC announcement? It's only 10-20 minutes of video each day, so the battery life is not a serious problem. And the time and place shifting angle is the value. The downside is that it's not live. But compared with TV on a mobile (which basically is not ready for primetime and too expensive), it'd be a better bet for many people as they head to work on a bus or train.

Finally, one level further up would be a more fully-fledged Tivo-2-go service. Again involving public broadcasters. You download your favourite episodes of the Office etc and have them on your computer and, if you like, your iPod with video. Great for the BBC. The cost of selling these on DVD is not insubstantial. Cut out all the manufacturing/distributing lark, and you could perhaps sell such episodes at maybe £1.50 -£2 and make more profit. Plus, you could make them available almost instantaneously making the most of the publicity. The iTMS would be capable of this very easily. And most of us would find the DRM (assuming similar to today, but perhaps without DVD burning?) acceptable, especially with the introduction of one additional device!

And this is where I'm really going out on a limb. Remember the break-out box - mentioned on a few rumour sites late last year - codenamed Asteroid? It got Apple pretty excited, so much so that they sued the rumour sites that ran it, and yet it's nowhere to be seen. I just wonder whether such a device in the guise of an Airport Express 2 box is going to be the other piece in this puzzle. A device that connects to your stereo (as today) but also has video out capability to connect to normal tv's (though I think it would be analogue connections). You would be able to play the videos from your iTunes computer through this device to any connected TV. Furthermore, it would have a docking port to allow you to dock your iPod both for play back of photos, music and perhaps the video and to receive it's podcasts via syncing functionality for the next day. The nice thing about this is that anyone can start doing this at home WITHOUT a video-capable iPod. Just like everyone could use iTunes without an iPod on their computer. They already had the content (their music CD's). This way you create the demand for the device with content, rather than have the device create the demand for content and hope it comes along.

Maybe this is all too ambitious from just one announcement, but I think this way of bringing video doesn't really conflict with much of what Apple have said publicly. They've said "customers aren't telling us they want a video iPod" for instance. Well, yes, but that doesn't mean you can't LEAD them that way by creating an experience they hadn't imagined but is so easy, it just works. They've also said about not believing in PC/TV convergence. Well, fine, this is not a converged device, is it?

And while you may say that all these things are too difficult, I just don't believe that. More than 18 months ago, Elgato introduced EyeHome - a device that does a great deal of what Asteroid might do (without the iPod dock and iTMS DRM-capability). On the PC platform, there is Slingbox which is garnering positive reviews. Apple was not the first with a hard-based iPod, but they waited until the key technologies were there to make the total EXPERIENCE as simple as it could be. This is a way in which they can make the next transition from music to video in a way which leads people to want something they didn't think they needed, and in a way which is compatible with many existing devices (eg tv's), and in a way which pleases a significant number of content companies. Apple aren't going to go to battle on movies yet - that's still a sit down experience for most, and the DRM issues are too big for Apple to solve themselves. But the way I'm proposing establishes a straightforward method for video content distribution that can benefit all the key parties in the chain.

Perhaps they'll err on the side of caution with the iPod - preferring to call it "the little music iPod that could" rather than the video iPod and setting false expectations about watching 10 hours of video.

What I'm suggesting is also a safe ploy now that the nano is set to be the primary music iPod for the vast majority of people. They have cemented their market leadership in that space, and they will go for something on the top end that re-establishes the technological superiority of the bigger iPod and gets people buying that model again.

Oh, and of course, there'll be a black version!

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