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Switched On: Next for the nano


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

For all the grousing about the minimal changes from the iPhone 4 to the iPhone 4S, Apple's fastest smartphone incorporates sweeping shifts compared to what the company did with its iPod line. From keeping the waning iPod classic in the lineup to leaving the still-potent iPod touch untouched save for a blanching and price reduction, the venerable digital media player line seemed all but ignored at a time of year when Apple once primed the holiday pump for MP3 players.

Yet, while the iPod touch may not have received the processor boost or Siri-ousness of the iPhone 4S, it at least continues to remain vibrant via access to Apple's app store. That's not the case for the nano, once the flagship of the line. While Apple's smallest touchscreen device gained new software that enlarged the main icons and brought new clock faces, these improvements are also being offered to owners of the last-generation iPod nano via a software update.

Virtually unchallenged in its price range, the nano can surely survive for years untouched much as the iPod classic has. However, will it merely hang on as its feature set-- long stripped of video capture and playback capabilities -- gets sandwiched between a lower priced iPod touch and a slew of commodity music players priced under $100?

With its new time-telling facades, Apple seems to have humored the idea of the nano as a watch; such usage doesn't hold up well today in the real world. However, the iPhone 4S's support of Bluetooth 4.0 -- which includes the low-power specification that began as WiBree -- may tip Apple's hand a bit as to its ultimate intentions for the nano. The nano does not yet support Bluetooth 4.0 (or any version of the specification), but the standard has been seen as a key component in helping reduce power consumption for such a product, There are also lower power display technologies -- such as Sharp's Memory in Pixel LCD on the forthcoming Meta Watch -- from which Apple has abstained.

Turning the nano into a glanceable display like the Sony Ericsson LiveView or the more recent MOTOACTV discussed in last week's Switched On could help Apple considerably in the widget war. As an interactive window for iOS devices, a revamped nano could make the device even more palatable to those who purchased iOS products such as the iPad. In iOS 5, Apple has revisited the idea of iPhone widgets -- differentiating them more from other iPhone apps -- in the drop-down notification center. However the nano could support not only a widget architecture for iPhones, but revitalize widget development for Dashboard, which seems to have languished since its debut in Tiger and has been somewhat sidelined as a Space in Lion.

Those widgets could even be useful as an addition to Apple TV or an element of an Apple-branded television should Apple pursue that oft-rumored path. Finally, with the advent of Siri, an iPhone-connected nano could bring retrieve bits of helpful info that could be formatted for the nano's 240 X 240 display or, of course, spoken back through the headphones.

When the iPhone was introduced, it had one of the largest touchscreens on a mobile device. These days, it seems compact compared to pocket-packing behemoths such as the Samsung Infuse, HTC Titan or Galaxy Nexus. But while the iPhone may not represent as much of a handful, there's still times that it -- like any phone -- isn't as close as you might want it. A reinvigorated nano could help create a bridge during those times and further tap the creativity of Apple's developer base.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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