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Switched On: When you wish upon iPod

Ryan Block, @ryan
10.12.05
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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

iPod (with video) in white and black smaller

As Switched On approaches its first anniversary later this month, it's an opportune time to visit that greatest of digital pack rats Google and look back at my first Engadget column. Written on the heels of Apple releasing the iPod photo (and, let me tell you, there isn't a lot of space to write on most heels), I argued that Apple was on a slippery slope toward a video iPod despite the company's many protests to the contrary. As I rhetorically noted in October 2004: "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?" Perhaps one reason why not was that there was no way to make money offering them, but Apple is now changing that with iTunes 6.

In any case, the persistent have finally been rewarded. Or at least some have. Apple's offering is not a "video iPod" in the generic "portable media player" vein that that product was often discussed. It's a video-enabled iPod that evolves the specific product that owns the digital audio player market. Like the original iPod and iPod nano, it breaks ground in terms of form factor, coming in at a fraction of the size of video competitors, but compromises on the screen size. Its 2.5-inch display is sharp and saturated, but relatively small compared to other hard disk-based portable video competitors. "Han shot first" protesters who want to commiserate in Greedo's altered aggression with friends enjoying a ripped Star Wars DVD should look elsewhere.


On the other hand, like its predecessors, the video iPod is about more than just the hardware; it integrates software and content. And here we see a dramatic difference between the audio and video content landscapes. Apple made a huge splash when it introduced the iTunes Music Store by lining up all the major music labels. In contrast, its video selection is an eclectic smorgasboard of homebrew iMovies, amateur hour (video podcasts) with great potential, previously promotional music videos, still-promotional (for now) movie trailers, and the very tip of the TV iceberg available without commercials in a pay-per-episode model.

Apple?s rational pay-for-ownership model works well in the music world, and timing may be right to introduce it in the television episode world. Some folks are too busy to watch optically preserved reruns until their brains liquefy, but consumers have flocked to boxed DVD sets of classic ?- and not so classic ?- TV shows. Plus, the iTunes store?s freshness in terms of current episodes enables the end to that seemingly endless quest for that show you forgot to record. Including two childrens? series is also a good move in light of kids? tolerance for TV repetition.

For the networks and studios, of course, selling low-resolution episodes a la carte will be pure gravy, and music labels may be so thrilled about getting to monetize music videos that they may cut Apple some slack on the flat-rate pricing debate. Indeed, if consumers start to purchase music videos, music labels will receive de facto pricing premiums for newer content by hot acts that they promote through such media. Still, Apple will probably make more money off viralicious song gifting than from TV shows than video for the foreseeable future. This will be huge on holidays like Valentine?s Day as the song dedication moves into the 21st Century.

Those who were looking for a video-optimized product like Creative?s Zen Vision or Archos?s AV line probably won?t be swayed by the new iPod. And while the PlayStation Portable makes it easy to buy movies, its current lack of bundled software and low storage capacity puts it at a disadvantage for other forms of content. In any case, those wanting more storage than the iPod nano provides will find an even more compelling music player that includes a bigger, better color screen that does more justice to photos, plays a nice game of Breakout (Whatever happened to the guys who came up with that anyway?), has enough capacity to hold all but the largest music collections, and packages it in an even slimmer profile. The video iPod will be here next week, but what?s more important for Apple and most consumers is that the company has its strongest digital audio lineup in its history.



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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