The iPod of the Future (Maybe)

"I have an iPod connected in my car. Every time I go into reverse, it plays music from the 80s."

-- with respects to Steven Wright

Weire all eagerly waiting for a 6G iPod with a larger, touch sensitive screen, virtual controls, and usable in either a traditional vertical format or horizontal format for video. Iim not surprised that this kind of iPod is delayed, and I suspect, along with many others, that there are tricky user interface and engineering issues to be worked out.

For example, in our house, we have a Honeywell thermostat with a touch sensitive LCD display. The smallest area that I have to touch is rectangle about 3 mm by 9 mm and this thermostat often gets it wrong and selects the adjacent setting. People can be tough on their toys, all thumbs sometimes, so a relatively small iPod touch screen probably presents some interesting reliability and user consistency issues - for users of all ages.

Once that 6G iPod is in production, all kinds of possibilities open up thanks to the larger screen. To date, weive already seen some modest feature creep in the iPod. The standard video iPod now has the ability to play movies, show information from a PIM, display a clock and timer, and play games.

As I think about the future of the iPod, I canit help but think of Star Trekis Tricorder. That concept has evolved into some cool ideas about personal communications showcased in Earth: Final Conflict. And I note that LTC Samantha Carter of Stargate SG-1 is always using some kind of hand-held computer or sensor toy. So itis hard to resist thinking about what the iPod of the future may hold.

The Metrics

But as we do so, we have to build metrics for deciding if any given feature is a realistic candidate. Here are the ones that I think are important.

  1. Privacy, security, loss factor
  2. User demand
  3. Competing markets
  4. Utility, affordance, simplicity
  5. Battery power
  6. Airline & travel security issues
  7. Integration with Apple products
  8. Apple branding
  9. Packaging, ports, and component cost (and FCC certification)

Letis discuss these considerations in order and use them to assess the potential growth of iPod functions.

1. Right now, if you lose your iPod, itis a financial loss, but not a crisis. (Aside from kids with very irate parents.) One can buy a new iPod and re-sync the iTunes music library to it. If youive downloaded your contact list, it may or may not be a crisis. For example, a simple contact list with friends and family can be exploited by a stranger, but the loss of a contact list with the names of stock brokers, family doctors, financial institutions, and business associates would make one very nervous.

Any further creep in the scope of what kinds of organized data the iPod stores has to take into account the potential ill will of customers when an iPod is accidentally lost or stolen. Soon, we may see a requirement to log onto an iPod and all data stored will be encrypted, just like FileVault in Mac OS X. The addition of the search function with access to the alphabet is probably a precursor to a login screen.

2. User demand ultimately dictates the features of an iPod. As I mentioned last week, Apple adds these features in an incremental way, evaluating the customer reaction along the way.

3. Apple has to assess whether similar functionality is locked up by competing products. For example the GPS-based navigation systems like the Magellan already have a rich infrastructure of support and customer awareness. Is it worth the effort the time and effort to duplicate? Magellans are larger and have room for a speaker for voice output. Does Apple need to go there?

4. Apple has worked very hard to keep the iPodis user interface simple and intuitive. As more new features are added, the need for a more complex user interface arises. And then the customer, mired in complexity, is no longer able to exploit the device in a simple intuitive way. Apple and its customers appreciate simplicity.

5. Battery technology keeps improving, and there are add-on battery packs for iPods. But ultimately, as in designing a deep space probe, the functions are limited by the available power. And since the next step is a good sized screen, perhaps 100 mm across (diagonally), battery power will be at a premium for years.

6. One has to consider that if an iPod is restricted from airliner carry on items, what is the impact on the customer? Does she simply lose the ability to listen to music? Watch a movie? Or is the restriction so severe that the traveler faces a personal crisis? For example, in the far future, an electronic, digitally encrypted passport on an iPod, if lost in checked luggage, would be a personal crisis. More immediately, the passenger might not be able to buy food or check their health if some tempting features listed here were included.

7. If the Macintosh is the digital hub of oneis life and an iPod is a satellite system, what technologies are required in Mac OS X to support neat features in the iPod? What new software for syncing or management must be written? They must both complement each other and marry well and remain part of Appleis vision and expertise.

8. Apple has to think about branding. Apple is famous for music. Soon, theyill be famous for being your home theater solution provider. But what about added features that donit fit in with Appleis brand? Apple knows that even if something can be done, that doesnit mean it should be done. Thatis one of the things that makes Apple special. There is no "kitchen sink" thinking at Apple.

9. Of course, any added feature has to be amenable to miniaturization, be simple and cheap to manufacture, and may require additional I/O ports which may require another connector, sensor, antenna, etc. -- which influences (or adversely affects) the packaging and FCC certification. Some additional features could get the iPod banned from airline travel or some government facilities.

The Feature Candidates

With these considerations in mind, Iill list the top ten technology items that could be added to the iPod over the next few years and my own estimate of the probability.

#10. Air Analyzer, Radiation Detector This would be cool, and give the iPod some of the functionality of a Star Trek Tricorder. But itis utility is low for people who donit travel to other planets or work in hazardous environments where there are far better instruments available. Metrics #3, #7, #8 and #9 apply. [ 0 % ]

#9. Emergency Locator There are emergency locator systems that work through satellite systems - for maritime and, for example, skiing or mountain climbing. But these devices are intended to be used in an emergency: push the button. The simplest possible user interface is mandatory, and the battery is used once -- only in an emergency. Not appropriate for an iPod. Metrics #3 and #8 apply. [ 0 % ]

#8. Personal Health Monitor This would be a slightly more preferable feature of the Tricorder. To be able to monitor pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygen, and blood glucose remotely or non-invasively would be helpful. But does Apple really want to get into the certification of medical products? Is this something better done by others? Metrics #1, #4, #6, #7, #8 and #9 all rule this out. [ 1 % ]

#7. Vibration Sensor, Personal Security It would be easy to detect whether the iPod were jostled, say the motion of a bedroom or hotel room door. The problem is that thereis no room for a speaker inside an iPod. Nor should it have one. Wearing even a Bluetooth earpiece to bed is a little over the top. Metrics #5 and #8 apply, especially #8. [ 5 % ]

#6. Credit Card Replacement An iPod could easily replace a credit card with an encrypted RFID link and personal, digital signature. Just authorize and wave your iPod to make a purchase. Metrics #1, #2, #4, #6 and #7 apply. [ 10 % ]

#5. Flight Recorder Itis almost certain that when Apple adds the phone feature a camera will be included. At this point, the addition of a GPS makes sense, not for navigation, but for personal security and "your digital life." For example, if one observed a car accident or an assault, one could take pictures and upload the images and GPS-based coordinates to the police. If one survived a minor accident or skirmish or fall, one could upload personal vitals, visual status, and location to 911 service. One could also program it to record and save the last few minutes of video prior to a high-g situation when put on the dash of a car, sailplane or light plane. (Secure attachment required.) Metrics #2 and #4 apply. [ 30 % ]

#4. AM/FM/Satellite Radio This looks 50-50 to me -- not because radio stations are more appealing than having your own custom playlist without commercials. But there are other very good uses such as listening to Car Talk on NPR while washing the car on Saturday or getting in touch with the real world during an earthquake, storm, tornado or hurricane. It could expand the market in some foreign locations. Metrics #3, #5 and #9 are a concern but inclusion will be driven by #2. [ 50 % ]

#3. Camera Motion and Still. Given that everyone wants to record whatis going on around them, especially for those interested in preserving life histories and possibly posting it somewhere, this is a no-brainer. * It fits into the Apple branding and strategy. [ 95 % ]

#2. Remote Control for Front Row Maybe even a universal remote. Clearly the code-named "iTV" will be feeding your HDTV via HDMI. Previously, Apple had to supply a small remote for Front Row because the iPod, with a touch sensitive, "soft key" display, wasnit available. What if your only iPod is a nano? Youill just have to buy the larger one as well. [ 99 % ]

#1. Phone My RAZR is fairly cool, but face it, the cell phone companies in concert with the carriers are loading up so much crap that the cell phone has become a nightmare. Too hard to use, too many functions, and too much agenda designed to run up your monthly bill. Apple will cut through all the crap and build a cell phone thatis a joy to use. Theyill sell tens of millions and earn billions. We just know this is coming. [ 100 % ].

If you have any ideas that I missed, send them along or register and post in the comments. To play fair, you must weigh the practicality of your idea against the nine metrics above and list which metric(s) may apply.

* Anyone for "Bully of the Week" vlog?