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The iPod Is Really Showing Its Age

by , 10:00 AM EST, February 20th, 2003

The iPod is really showing its age. It has a great design, but is missing lots of new features that are considered standard these days, like USB 2.0 (which is important to Windows customers), FM radio, recording, and music transmission via FM (so you can play your tunes on car stereos). Most of the rumor sites are claiming that new iPods will just feature an increase in hard drive sizes and not much else.

If this is true, it will be a shame.

While Apple seemingly stagnates and rests on its laurels, there is a ton of innovation going on in the MP3/Media market (see videos).

In a series of MP3 player related articles, Elliot Van Buskirk of C|Net details how the iPod is looking long in the tooth and also examines some forward looking devices and features.

I agree with his assessment of the MP3 terrain, and also marvel at features found in new MP3 players like the Yepp 900, Digital Innovations' Neuros, and the Odyssey 1000, all of which offer FM radio recording (with track tagging!) and/or transmission. The Nomad Zen is the same basic size as the iPod, but it manages to add FM and recording abilities through a remote. These devices have pushed the bubble in MP3 players, but I think even more can be done, namely a PDA.

An iPad.

Personally, I don't know what Apple's problem is with regard to the PDA. I mean Apple sells the Palm Tungsten in the Apple Store, and some have gone so far as to provide market analysis and projections that speculate that an Apple branded device could add a cool $30 to $50 million in profits to Apple's bottom line. So why not do it?

Let's ignore the perception that Steve Jobs maybe spurning the PDA market because John Scully had him booted from Apple all those years ago (the PDA/Newton was Scully's baby after all).

Ostensibly, the reason behind Apple not having a PDA is a simple one: Steve Jobs said that Apple only wants to enter into markets where the company is a step ahead of the competition. Although the first mover "advantage" is of highly questionable economic value -- as Apple's and Microsoft's histories have shown -- let's assume there is something to it. The theory is that between Palm and all the Microsoft Pocket PC devices, and their supposed low margins, Apple would be nuts to enter the fray.

That assessment seems fair enough, but it ignores what seems to be a fairly huge opening in the market. As far as I'm aware, to date no one has combined a PDA with a hard drive. Basically the big innovation of the iPod was that it had a decent sized hard drive in a small and pretty MP3 playing package (other larger devices with hard drives did exist). Why not do the same with a PDA? Once you throw a hard drive into the mix, magic can happen. You can play videos, MP3's, store lots of contact information, and with a high-density screen, even surf the web.

Perhaps more importantly, Apple could provide a reference design and start making money on licensing such a platform to other manufacturers. Apple could base such a reference design on a stripped down version of OS X or Darwin and X11. If you think that's not doable then check out the Toshiba MEG50AS Mobilphile, which runs on Linux. The great thing about licensing is that Apple can have specialized 3rd party licensees, which could manufacture and provide fancier, more esoteric, and subsequently larger designs, while limiting Apple's investment and exposure in the PDA industry.

So Apple can produce the nice small baseline iPad and leave the feature-itis to licensees. Licensees can get really fancy and throw in a camera. Sound wacky? Several video cameras are coming out, but they are limited to using memory cards ranging from 256Mb to 1GB, which in turn greatly limits the resolution and duration of the MP4 videos they capture. If you use a hard drive, you can then skip capturing video from your camera and just move it into iMovie at full Firewire/USB 2.0 speed.

Also, the fact is that people seem to be clamoring for an iPad, or really, a personal communicator. Why do I say this? Because I notice lots of people are carrying tons of gadgets. They look like geeky versions of Batman -- carrying a cell phone, a PDA, an iPod, a pager and other gadgets. Further, Apple's loyal fan-base constantly and wistfully pray for such a device, promising sales should Apple deliver. The technology exists today to combine these things into a single device, and if Apple is serious about innovating, it could beat everyone to the punch.

So what features would I like to see in an iPad? Here are five proposed models:

I. A realistic proposal for Apple to build (a base iPad), including:

  • A high resolution color screen (something that provides 640x480 pixels of resolution or more in a 2.25" x 3.75" form factor will suffice, i.e., the entire face of the iPad would be a touch screen, with a virtual spin wheel) like in this mockup;
  • FireWire 800 or USB 2.0 for Windows (ideally both);
  • An AM/FM receiver and transmitter;
  • Recording, both line-in and FM recording (including song tagging and TiVo-like scheduling);
  • PDA functions (finally using the handwriting recognition that is currently languishing in OS X) including your basic calendaring, address book, to do list, memos, etc.;
  • A media player supporting MP3, MP4, WAV, Raw Video, etc.

II. A video version for 3rd party licensees, including:

  • A camera (with at least 2 megapixel stills and full motion digital video capture).

III. A communicator version for 3rd party licensees, including:

IV. A navigator version for 3rd party licensees, including:

  • GPS navigation features.

V. And a Pro version, including:

  • Bluetooth; and/or
  • Airport Extreme (imagine syncing your data and media just by driving into your garage).

I've sprinkled links throughout to demonstrate that many such features have been combined, but none of them are "just right," which is where Apple could step in. Most nay-sayers will think that's just too much stuff for any one device, many of whom are wearing utility belts.

John Kheit is an attorney. Please don't hold that against him. This work does not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of The Mac Observer or even John for that matter. No assertions of fact are being made, but rather the reader is simply asked to consider the possibilities.

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