What is the iPod and where is it going?

iPod…….. Think about that word for a minute. What does it mean? What is a pod?

I first wrote back in March of 2002 about how the choice of words and format for the iPod must have been carefully reasoned and worked into the strategy for future development of the iPod platform. Specifically I said that rather than market it specifically as an .mp3 player, and calling it something that reflected an .mp3 player, “Instead they called it the iPod describing a case or container that could potentially be utilized for the storage of a variety of media or data.” While the iPod Shuffle and iPod Mini are still holding down the music player paradigm, the original iPod model is moving towards a container for other media, which right now appears to be digital photographs. The first week of March 2002, Apple began introducing some functionality traditionally associated with PDAs. Specifically, at that point contact lists were included with calendar functionality introduced later. This functionality of course linked through iSync to coordinate your address book and iCal giving one some of the same conveniences on the road as you had with your laptop or desktop Macintosh. On October 26th of last year, Apple introduced the iPod Photo and with todays announcement, they appear to be migrating the original iPod model to the iPod photo by phasing out models with the monochrome screen, currently leaving only one monochrome model with the iPod Photo taking over the high end of that line.

So, looking at the entire iPod line, we are currently at a place where the iPod is becoming a platform in of itself within Apple, sort of like the Newton was before its untimely but necessary death back in 1998 as part of the reorganization of Apple Computer. From a business perspective, the iPod is positioned almost exactly like the Newton was, as essentially a subsidiary within Apple. So, where is the iPod going? There are some clues coming from industry sources including camera interoperability and bluetooth functionality for the not too distant future, which begs the question of where iPod development will leave off? Will there be a continued development of the iPod line into a sort of ultraportable computer? Sony’s exit from the PDA market entirely does leave the market wanting for a device that could compete with the Windows PDA market, but how to market such an item? The success of the iPod initially was due to very careful positioning of the product as a task specific device optimized for music playback. However, in its current form there is only so much development that could be accomplished. The iPod is successful principally because the concept was taken down to its essence and supremely optimized for its task, having run the gauntlet through Apple development until it achieved the vaunted acknowledgment that it “did not suck”. So when something is as close to perfection as you can make it, you either have to wait for technology to become available for further improvements or you can introduce further functionality. This added functionality plays off the other developments within Apple including iPhoto, and their image handling technology. But there are other developments within Apple that may also have significance to the development of the platform. Namely, Rendezvous nee Bonjour is one technology that combined with Bluetooth could make for more social media exchange among other networking functionality and data handling. Certainly the video technology that Apple has been developing along with Pixlet or H.264 could pave the way for video iPods that everybody appears to be clamoring for, and lets not forget that essence of PDA functionality that the iPod currently has, but is lacking some way of direct data input without a computer to sync it to. I personally still believe there is potential for future audio development with the iPod. Specifically, I am still wanting recordability functionality with the iPod (more than what Belkin currently provides) that would allow me to record audio information, convert that audio information to text (speech to text) and then allow me to archive and search audio information such as lectures, or meeting minutes or even physician dictation. The business argument for such functionality cannot be ignored.

Eventually we may yet see an evolution of the iPod to take over where the Apple Newton once was with all of this functionality and communication ability. Remember that the Newton was a sophisticated computational device that some folks even used as a web server. All the pieces are in place for an Apple handheld revival that theoretically could integrate traditional iPod functionality as well. We have bluetooth for synching purposes, 802.11 for wireless networking to your desktop system and web-access, Inkwell (code essentially lifted from the Newton OS) for handwriting recognition, Quicktime and Pixlet for media files (movies on the plane if you could somehow temporarily rip them to volatile memory or something), iTunes for .mp3’s etc…etc…etc… Ideally, what I would like would be something like a Newton, with a VGA out for presentations on the road (Keynote), built in voice or sound recording with speech to text software (already present to a limited extent in OS X) for taking notes in presentations/meetings, built in networking abilities, built in high res screen for reading .pdf’s (most scientific journals are publishing in .pdf) and the ability to mark up those .pdf’s. iCal, Mail and perhaps iPhoto would be nice as well.

Of course we cannot expect Apple to move directly to such a thing without significant market research to justify such an investment, but I would have to believe such a device if it could be affordable, would be a huge seller and it would again fill a niche in the market that is lacking a well wrought solution.

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