Apple’s Fall Music Event – FIRST TAKE

It’s been a busy morning for Apple with lots of interesting news, a few surprises and some very important and solid products. Let’s get started and I’ll break it all down for you.

Apple introduces iOS 4.1
First up, Apple started with the formal announcement of the first major iOS 4 update, iOS 4.1. What’s new? Quite a lot actually. First there are bug fixes for some of the user reported problems related to the proximity sensor, Bluetooth and iPhone 3G users upgrading to iOs 4. There’s also support for Gamecenter, announced at the WWDC and a cool new feature called HDR for the iPhone 4 camera. HDR essentially takes three pictures, an overexposed an underexposed and mid range and combines them so that highlights are captured properly. There’s a few apps out there that do this now but it’s great to see this integrated into the iPhone experience directly. It will be available next week and the price is free for all supported devices. In a slightly unusual move also announced iOS 4.2 that will bring iOS to the iPad in November along with new features for printing as well as a new media sharing feature called AirPlay. That release will also be available for the iPhone and iPod touch thus unifying the platform.

Apple Refreshes iPod Line
Fall is when Apple typically refreshes the iPod line and this year is no exception with the first time for new designs in the entire line in Sept. The lineup has been changed up and down and it’s a pretty impressive array of products. For those thinking that the iPod has neared and end of life, they couldn’t be more wrong.

iPod shuffle – The shuffle lives in a new design that combines some of the best features of the last two generations. Back are the buttons from the second generation along with the VoiceOver and playlist features from the most recent design. It’s basic but with a price of $49 for 2gb it’s the most affordable iPod yet and still packs an impressive 15 hours of battery life. This years models come in five colors and they’re amazing, the orange is especially nice IMHO. Slightly more pastel in nature they show and attention to detail. This might be Apple’s cheapest iPod but there is nothing cheap about it.

iPod nano – The first time I saw an iPod nano live I recall laughing at how small it was and I couldn’t believe what was holding was a real product. What a difference a few years make. The iPod Nano, now in generation six is amazing. Apple’s made a tiny Multi-Touch screen so there’s no click wheel, just tiny Multi-Touch goodness. There’s no video, camera or games this time around and that makes sense. The screen is just too small to deliver on that experience. This is about music and photos and it has to be seen to be believed. It’s also got 24 hours of battery life and comes in 8gb for $149 and 16gb for $179. I think this one’s going to be a big hit for those looking for the state of the art music device.

iPod touch – According to Apple the touch is now the most popular iPod and it gets even better in this generation. First, as hard as this to imagine, it’s now actually thinner. I mean crazy super model thin. Of course, that’s not all. Ipod touch now has a retina display like the iPhone 4 along with the Gyroscope, the A4 and two cameras front and back. Yep, there’s FaceTime support. The rear camera will do 720p HD video but it’s not a multi-mega pixel for stills. More for casual snapshots appropriate for Facebook and the like. Apple now leads the market in mobile gaming and this new generation will push that lead further. There are three models 8gb for $229, 16gb for $299 and 64gb for $399. Considering the technology that’s in there, that’s very aggressive pricing.

iTunes 10 – Of course it’s not an iPod update without a new version of iTunes. iTunes 10 looks a lot like the prior generation with some more refined views, especially with list view. What’s really new is Apple has built a social networking service called Ping as part of the iTunes experience, centered around music. Users can follow other users and as well as artists. Apple’s starting with about a dozen artists who can post a variety of content. I can see what others are listening, share my music, find out what concerts are happening and let others know they will be there. I can invite others via email or connect to Facebook. There’s also a new Ping button that is activated in iOS so I can also get the whole Ping experience out and about. It’s an important direction for Apple and it sets the stage for a whole new set of services and functions down the road. This might be one of the most important pieces of news longterm from today’s announcements.

Apple Refreshes Apple TV in a BIG way
It’s been around for awhile but Apple TV has never been a runaway hit. Apple’s CEO calls it a “hobby” but the TV is too important for Apple to ignore. The latest version of Apple TV is about a quarter of the size of previous models and it works in a totally different way. It’s designed to deliver and optimized streaming experience to users. It’s totally built around a rental model, not a purchase model although you can still connect to your computer and your iTunes library and stream any content that’s there. Movies rent for $4.99 for first run HiDef and there’s now a TV rental option for $0.99 a show. First networks to join in are ABC and FOX, with the usual suspects expected to join in over time. In addition to YouTube, Flickr and MobileMe there’s also a Netflix client built in. Frankly, it’s the best and nicest implementation I’ve ever seen and that feature alone is worth the price of admission. The price of the new box is $99 making it affordable. Ports include Ethernet, HDMI, USB, optical audio and no power brick. of course there’s also WiFi and it’s powered by an A4. Overall, I like Apple’s approach. By not attempting to include DVR functionality Apple sidesteps the battle for input one on the TV set. It’s a very different approach that Google is taking and I suspect Apple’s approach will likely have more appeal to mainstream consumers. I also expect there’s going to be some questions of a TV device with no apps. While I think an app eco system for TVs can make sense, like the iPhone before it, Apple needs to educate the market on on a paradigm shift. This Apple TV is a reset in many ways and the TV a device with very entrenched habits and behaviors. Before consumers can make a shift to that model, Apple needs to establish a position in the living room. There’s also a lot of issues in terms of user experience, command and control and content rights that need to be figured out. I expect over time we’ll see more here as this product evolves.

Bottom line? This is Apple’s most impressive fall lineup that I’ve seen. Apple’s reset the iPod line making the different products scale well both in terms of features and price. With the addition to the new social network Ping, Apple further reinforces their position as the leaders in digital music and drives the eco system forward. With the new Apple TV, Apple’s managed to keep the best features of the last generation of devices that should keep existing users happy while driving the product forward with more appeal for the mass market. Overall, it’s an important refresh to the lineup and at the same time sets the stage for a number of interesting directions for the future.

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