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Apple’s Show (And Tell) Time

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We've been here before. Every time Apple – and Mr Jobs – schedules one of their big events, we, the faithful, dutifully line up with our browsers, and hang on every word. Prior to the event we've discussed, blogged, and flamed about rumours, hopes, and desires.

And do they live up to our expectations any more? Perhaps more accurately: Are our expectations somewhat tarnished by the countless promise of "one more thing"?

Maybe the stakes are higher than they once were. Back when the iPod wasn't "hip" and digital music was the domain of hardcore geeks and techies, these events weren't so high profile. These days, they're important.

And none of Apple's recent events have been more important than this one. With mounting speculation suggesting that the iPod bubble was about to burst, Microsoft's competing device on the horizon, and the holiday season approaching, Apple needed to reveal something big.

And I think they did. Not big in a "hardcore, techie geek way", but big in a "continued dominance in the MP3 market" way. And I suppose, these days, that's what counts for Apple. And what's this big thing I think they've revealed? Coloured Nanos – that's what.

The Nano is, as Jobs mentioned, the most popular MP3 player in the world. The best way for Apple to make it more popular is to introduce new colours – check – and to improve the range of sizes to suit a wider range of budgets – check. The new – and let's not forget scratch resistant – Nanos are sure to be a big hit for Apple this holiday season, assuming they can meet the demand. I suspect the new Nanos are the shot in the arm required to carry the iPod line up to the true video iPod.

And what of the Video iPod? Sadly, unsurprisingly, and inevitably there was no sign of such a device. Instead, we're treated to an updated 5G line of iPods – the iPod With Video. The new line of 5gs (so 5.5gs?) sport a brighter screen, improved battery life, and slightly tweaked hard disk sizes.

And games. And we're not just talking about the classic Brick-Parachute-Solitaire combo that has graced previous iPods, oh no — Apple has opened the door onto something potentially huge. Downloaded games that play on your iPod and top up Apple's coffers by $5 every time you're tempted. And tempted you will be, I'm sure. How well these things will play on the touchwheel – a genius of interface design for music playback, but which was never really conceived with games in mind – remains to be seen.

It's a concept Microsoft has proved with Xbox Live – microtransactions are tempting enough to spirit away those tiny amounts, without you feeling noticeably light of pocket. And yet, before Microsoft could roll out their Zune and Live Anywhere double team, Apple has nipped in and stolen their thunder. I wonder if the first generation Zune is still not going to include games…

Let's not forget the new Shuffle, though. Redesigned so it's the same size as the Apple remote – which is surely a bad comparison as few people will actually know what the Apple remote looks like, since Apple stopped bundling it with their players – the shuffle is one of the most minimalist MP3 players I've ever seen. It's cute, but like the multi-coloured Nanos, not cute enough to coax a wad of cash out of most hardened techies. Unless, of course, you're a hardened techie that enjoys the gym (and, perhaps, that harbours a secret penchant for pink MP3 players).

With the much needed iPod refresh out of the way, Steve turned his attention to iTunes 7 – a central component in his plan to take over the world's living rooms. I can't offer any real impressions on it yet; after installation, it handily and annoyingly started a process of "determining gapless playback information" on my entire collection. I'm not sure why, and I didn't get a choice – it just did. Since then I've only had time for a quick play.

It looks nice, though. It's got a new yet very familiar interface that's cleaner, more elegant, more open. Dare I say, its use of icons and clean space makes it look a bit more "web 2.0" – whatever that means. The iPod now has its own section of iTunes – a selection of tabs allow you to control most elements of synchronisation. And there's a handy, colour-coded graph to tell you what's taking up all that room (divided into games, videos, music, photos etc). The whole thing works very nicely.

Other new features in 7 are automatic cover art retrieval from iTunes (if you've got an account) and Coverflow, which allows you to flick through your virtual CD collection, intent on finding that old Stone Temple Pilot album with the dragon on the front. Or something.

Interestingly, and refreshingly, Apple has bought the Coverflow technology from the brains at SteelSkies. Why refreshingly? Because in the past Apple has been known to "borrow" ideas from other apps and integrate them into their own software. Dashboard, anyone? Is this the start of a new precedent for Apple? Have they taken a leaf out of Microsoft's book? Either way, credit to them for paying for the idea, instead of just stealing it.

So that leaves us with two "one more things". The first full-length movie downloads from iTunes is hugely unexciting for those of us not in America, as it's not being launched outside of the US yet. Although, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure it's that exciting for anyone in America. Hopefully a few commenters can clarify this for me.

Why is it not exciting? Because I'm convinced that people aren't going to want to watch films on their computer. I've got a lovely, big, widescreen monitor and I have little desire to watch full length movies on it. Perhaps I'm wrong; perhaps there's a huge market for it, but I'm not convinced.

Nor am I convinced by portable full-length movie downloads. The price of portable DVD players is so low these days that I see these devices as a more viable option for portable film. The production values and episodic nature of TV make it more palatable on the move – although I'm not even sold on that idea – but I can't see movies taking off in the same way. Apple, clearly, doesn't agree.

They do have a secret weapon though. If, as I suspect, the movie downloading public doesn't want to watch downloaded movies on their computer, they need a way of watching those movies on their televisions. Enter the horrifically named iTV.

Boldly going where only Microsoft Media Center Extender devices have gone before, iTV – which is not only the name of a television channel in the UK, but also encroaches on the namespace of EyeTV, an application that's already available on the Mac for viewing and recording TV – serves to stream your movies (and presumably tunes, photos, and other desirable content) from any connected Mac.

It's a great idea. It's not an original idea – Media Center extenders, and an accompanying install of Microsoft Windows Media Center edition will accomplish a similar overall effect, as will an Xbox 360 and Media Center. There's a significant amount of additional labour involved with the Microsoft solution, however. In theory – using Apple's Bonjour technology to automatically discover your content – iTV will require no effort. I have no doubt that its overall power and extensibility will be limited in comparison to Redmond's offering, but when you're dealing with the sort of audience that Apple is – the iPod Generation – is that really going to put them off? If we're honest, do any of us prefer hours of fiddling about over an instantly functional kit?

And what's more, how many of the so called iPod Generation have heard of Media Center? I consider it to be one of the best products that Microsoft have ever released, and yet they don't promote it. With the arrival of Vista – which, in its Ultimate Edition incarnation includes Media Center – things might change, but right now I'd be willing to bet that more people are aware of Apple's as yet unreleased iTV device than they are Media Center, thanks to the fanfare that surrounds these events.

And yes, you read that right – "as yet unreleased". This was a sneak peek. It's not available from the Apple Store now, as Steve is so fond of saying. It will be – next year – but not yet, and certainly not "now". If you fancy streaming your Apple content to your TV, early 2007 is a date to put in your calendar. Or, you could buy yourself a Mac Mini – which would presumably accomplish the same task, and more besides.

Until we actually get to play with the device, it's probably best to reserve judgement. But given its component, and HDMI output, slimline Mac Mini styling, and attractive FrontRowMax user interface, it's a device I'd like to get more acquainted with.

Apple has quoted $300 for their iTV device. Is this too much? Possibly. But I'm sure an awful lot of people said that about the iPod. Apple has set sail for their next uncharted territory – video. They might not yet have a full crew, and the wind might be slightly against them right now but, as they say, anything can happen at sea. I'm not sold just yet – my Media Center installation is a difficult beast to part with, and Apple needs to offer me something extremely compelling to tempt me away.

So it's coloured nanos, micropayment mini games, and full-length movie downloads vs Microsoft's Zune this holiday season. Expect an announcement, and full analysis, of that product soon.

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  • The “Determinine Gapless Playback” is the most annoying feature I’ve ever seen in iTunes. I have over 5000 songs, so at this rate it will take 2 days for it to completely go through all my songs!

  • iTV is a code name. He said that in the keynote.

  • “Determaning Gapless Playback Information” on a rather large library on an external firewire drive is enough to bring the spinning beach ball of death.

    How fun!