iPod PhotoWe really lucked out. We convinced our good friend Ross Rubin to write a new weekly column for us called Switched On which'll cover everything related to digital convergence, the connected home, and all those other multimedia buzzwords that marketers are tossing out these days. Fortunately, Ross knows how cut through all the marketese and get straight to the heart of the matter, as he does with his inaugural column about the new iPod Photo:

There are many good reasons to pre-announce products in the technology industry. You get all the excitement of having something new without the burden of having to actually produce or manufacture it. However, you'd think that in an industry that is famous for such embarrassing pronouncements that 640K ought to be enough for anybody (well, maybe for your camera's firmware) or that there is a world market for about five computers (perhaps in every person's pockets), companies would tread cautiously in announcing that they're not going to create something.

While that's not exactly been the case with Apple and a video-enabled iPod, the company's derision of portable video has certainly signaled that we shouldn't expect such a device before, say, the next major Earth-smashing asteroid threat.

There are two primary reasons for Apple to create a video iPod. The first would be that the company believed that there is real demand for such capability, though Apple has signaled that it sees anything but (the second I'll discuss later). There are a number of strong arguments for this, including the user attention that video requires, the content acquisition dilemma, and the poor experience that a 3.5-inch LCD provides when compared with enjoying the Finding Nemo DVD on the 60-inch plasma in your Gulfstream V.


So why is the iPod�s 2-inch screen too small for video but large enough for photos? And the S-video port on the iPod Photo�s dock for connection to a TV is about the last straw. Sure, video is ridiculous, but how about an iPod that can display 30 photos per second synchronized to sound? Apple has had great success in implementing the iPod�s relatively large scroll wheel; I�m sure the frighteningly clever folks in Cupertino could figure out a way to accommodate a larger screen just as they figured out how to accommodate a smaller one with the iPod Mini.

Even so, Apple thinks that consumers don�t necessarily want portable video. That is likely true for many, or at least a larger group than those who don�t want portable audio. However, this quickly brings us to the second reason to support video, which is a supply-driven value-add and competitive differentiator. These are not necessarily the must-have features that sell products�and piling on distracting clutter can lessen a product�s appeal�but lowering component costs make them a bit of a no-brainer.

Such seems to be the case with the iPod Photo. Were consumers gazing longingly at their beloved music players and asking, �Wouldst that I could navigate thousands of photos on this tiny screen?� They were probably not since (despite Apple�s dancing commercials) a lot of consumers are content to keep their iPods out of sight in their pockets or bags, cell phones are becoming our mobile photo albums, and nobody uses the word �wouldst.� Apple decries the �why not?� school of product design, but surely it�s thinking of ways to fill up a 60 GB hard disk. (Psst, video will do this better than photos.)

Apple need not even stray far from its music mantra in order to justify adding video to the iPod. Like other players with color screens, the iPod Photo supports album art. But iTunes supports music videos; why shouldn�t the iPod? If there are any signs of life in the packaged music industry today, it is the sale of DVD concerts. And then there are the ancillary uses. If Apple is serious about the iPod as an educational tool beyond keeping the RIAA boogeyman away, can it really argue that video lectures or archival material wouldn�t be at least as valuable as audio content? Does anyone remember Apple�s Keynote application that could natively export to QuickTime?

Apple certainly isn�t bound to stay out of the portable video market as the company isn�t above admitting mistakes, such as when it missed having the new �fat panel� iMac G5 ready for back-to-school, or when it neglected to put CD burners in earlier iMacs. In fact, so impressive has been Apple�s turnaround in digital music that it may wind up being the company that ultimately capitalizes on portable video�s potential. But as anyone who�s been as involved with movies as Steve Jobs should know dramas just aren�t as much fun when someone tries to spoil the ending for you. Let us watch.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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Switched On: The iPod Photo's slippery slope towards video