Apple's Secret Weapon: The IPod, Revamped
Updates to Apple's iPod Touch will keep the music player a valuable player in its lineup of products.
The iPhone received the lion's share of attention with Apple's announcement on Wednesday, and many debate whether the iPhone 5 is just "business as usual" for Apple or a worthy iteration of a now-iconic smartphone.
But Apple's most significant product revamp was actually for one of its most enduring yet under-appreciated devices: the iPod, particularly the high-end iPod Touch. It's arguably Apple's secret weapon in helping it keep up market dominance and grow its audience and user base as the mobile era marches forward.
Apple's Foundation Rests on IPods
Apple introduced the first iPod in 2001, and the portable music device played a huge role in helping to turn the flailing company around. The company has sold more than 350 million iPods since then, which helped to fuel its bustling iTunes digital content platform. The company introduced a premium version, the iPod Touch, in 2007.
The iPod Touch has become a top seller since then. By 2011, 60 million units sold overall, according to sales figures released as evidence during Apple's tangle of lawsuits with Samsung. iPod Touch sales are second to only to the iPhone, and iPod Touch users tend to buy and use more apps than their smartphone and tablet brethren, making them powerful revenue drivers.
Eclipsed by IPhones and IPads
Despite the role iPod Touch devices play in Apple's product lineup, they've been eclipsed in recent years by game-changing iPhones and iPads. Markets for both smartphones and tablets have exploded in the years after the iPod's release, and Apple has cemented its reputation for innovation and elegance with these mobile devices. The company also hasn't offered a significant update to its portable music products in comparison to its market-defining handset and tablet.
Wednesday's announcement, offers Apple's biggest product refresh to the iPod line, particularly the iPod Touch. The next-generation iPod is bigger, thinner and lighter, echoing its slimmed-down, elongated handset cousin. It's 6.1-millimeters thick, and weighs in 3.1 ounces. It features a larger 4-inch retina display, packs a dual-core A5 processor (the same one in the iPhone 4S), and touts longer battery life.
Beyond more powerful guts, it will offer a 5-megapixel rear-facing camera, featuring auto-focus and flash, and will be available in pink, yellow, blue, black, slate and a white-and-silver combo.
The refreshed iPods' software will also put it on par with the iPhone. It will ship with iOS 6 and will also come with voice assistant Siri, expanding its capabilities even further.
The significant update has many re-examining the long-overshadowed iPod Touch within Apple's bigger picture, offering clues on its place in the company's overall strategy. Some have wondered if Apple would eventually phase out or edit down its music player product category, but the update proves the company understands how integral a role it plays in its overall operations -- and how important it is to keep its iPod Touch devices competitive. This is especially vital considering the role it plays in its iOS landscape, particularly with young people and in apps and gaming, offering a powerful alternative to the iPhone and iPad in broadening its user base.
The Youth Element
Long-considered a product for those who are looking for an iPhone without the phone, the iPod Touch has cultivated a big following with parents looking for something for their tweens and teens. The iPod Touch gives users mobile access to a half-million Apple apps, social networking activities, music, movies, books and even fitness options.
The latest iPod's range of bright colors bond directly to the body and are not just painted on, making them super vibrant and especially appealing to a younger demographic. Also, Apple's AirPlay feature streams content to other devices or wirelessly mirrors what's on a specific iPod Touch to everyone in the room, providing endless sharing options.
For many kids, accessories are critical, and the iPod Touch hits the mark here, with the latest iteration's new earbuds. They are re-designed "based on the geometry of your ear," so they feel and sound better.
Finally, the Touch's upgraded camera is great for Instagram and for people who enjoy FaceTime for video chatting.
No Carrier Contract, Almost
The iPod Touch is also popular because it doesn't need a carrier contract. You can do use its Wi-Fi to do just about anything but make a phone call -- and thanks to FaceTime video calling, users can almost do that too.
That will change with the latest-generation iPod, though. The iOS update later this month, means FaceTime is being offered over cellular networks. AT&T said it will offer the program as an added benefit of Mobile Share data plans, meaning consumers will pay to use the service where before it was free on Wi-Fi.
Sprint, as the only carrier to still offer unlimited data with the new iPhone 5, and Verizon, which is moving its customers to data plans, both announced they will not charge extra for FaceTime calls or make customers change contracts. And customers on T-Mobile's network, which is the only one not to offer the iPhone, can have their piece of the Apple pie with the iPod Touch.
These FaceTime changes affect iPod Touch devices with LTE capability, not those that are Wi-Fi only. Still, the bigger point that you can have a powerful, useful Apple device without the commitment and cash of a contract is a huge selling point for families, Android smartphone users, and T-Mobile customers.
Creating a Premium iOS Gaming Experience
Many of the changes will help the redesigned iPod gain favor as a premier portable gaming device, providing a powerful boost to the App Store.
The iPod Touch already connects millions of Apple users to popular games. Developer Dave Castelnuovo, who co-created the popular game "Pocket God," said to CNN more than 50 percent of its players play on an iPod Touch. Smartphones and other mobile devices have leeched market share from traditional portable gaming consoles like Nintendo's DS series of devices. Apple's latest change brings the product fully into the forefront of the mobile gaming era, and major improvements to screen size, battery life and processing power will only further boost its status.
The larger display also boosts gameplay. Game developers will likely welcome a larger market and create premium HD products to take advantage of its beautiful, clear graphics. The new dual-core A5 processor means it has twice the processing power of older-model Touch devices and runs graphics up to seven times faster. Finally, the longer battery life -- up to 40 hours of music playback, or 8 hours of video -- offers gamers more juice.
Apple also will offer AirPlay Mirroring for the first time with the new iPods, allowing users to wirelessly display the iPod's screen on a HDTV screen. This means more complex, premium games that take full advantage of stronger computer power and graphic rendering, all in a lightweight, portable device.
Apple says more than 100,000 of the 700,000 apps in its App Store are games. Senior vice-president Greg Joswiak says the iPod Touch is the world's most popular music player, but also mentioned "a lot of people don't realize that it's also the world's most popular video game player as well."
"A large group of users still use the second-generation iPod Touch, which was holding back our implementation of new features," said Castelnuovo. "I believe that these users were not upgrading the new hardware because there hasn't been a substantial iPod Touch iteration until now. With the larger screen, new design and assortment of colors, I think we're going to see a very large adoption of the new hardware."
Answering the "IPad Mini" Question?
The iPod Touch may be an enduring, though under-appreciated, device in Apple's lineup of mobile products now, but the mobile device -- often cited by fans as an "iPhone without the phone" or "a tiny iPad" -- could play a higher-profile role of the company as it helps to answer the threat posed by Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets.
Apple's iPads still lead the premium tablet market, but Amazon's offerings have found momentum with a sector of users hungry for a tablet without the premium price. The Kindle Fire's popularity proved that smaller screen sizes don't deter many customers. Amazon announced a direct competitor to the iPad with a high-end HD tablet device, but Apple has yet to directly answer the challenge for a smaller, cheaper "iPad Mini," which has been long rumored for the company. Kindle Fire tablets will likely continue to eat away at this increasingly valuable segment of customers until the company comes up with a solution.
The major changes to the iPod Touch could help fill that gap. Upgrades in both front- and rear-facing cameras, the addition of Siri, and a dual-core processor puts the device on par with both the iPhone and iPad. Yes, the 4-inch screen size is likely too small to make the iPod Touch into a true tablet competitor, and in reality the iPod Touch is more "iPhone without the phone" than a smaller iPad.
The iPod's new pricing certainly positions it at a lower tier than the iPad -- and also forces questions on where exactly the rumored iPad mini fits into Apple's roster. The new-generation iPods will run $300 for the 32-gigabytes version and $400 for 64-gigabyte version, while the new iPad's pricing starts at $500 for the base model and the iPad 2 starts at $400. The pricing structure leads questions on where a mini iPad would fit in -- or if there is a place for a smaller, cheaper iPad.
The high price tag for the iPod Touch devices raises eyebrows, though the hardware is more powerful, storage more abundant and software more robust. Its pricing may be Apple's answer to the rumors about a smaller iPad. True to late founder Steve Jobs' antipathy to a smaller tablet device, there may not be a smaller iPad for now, and the role of the smaller, cheaper iOS conduit will fall to the iPod Touch for the time being.
If the mobile experience is moving towards software, and hardware is less of a factor as products begin to level out in terms of power and pricing, then the iPod Touch's significant refresh certainly makes it a powerful entrance to Apple. It's not likely, though, that Apple will market it as an iPad Mini and against the lower-priced Kindle Fire.
Instead, iPod Touch will remain Apple's quiet, though formidable secret weapon in its arsenal of products: sold as a music product, but with profound strengths as a gaming and media device -- and an accessible, more economical gateway to the Apple experience.
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Categories: Features | Gadgets & Gear