Do you recall the rhetorical flourish with which Apple launched the iPod Nano in 2005? Steve Jobs proudly announced that whilst the iPod mini was the best selling iPod in history, today they were going to replace it. In fact, they launched a smaller model with a new enclosure and a colour display. They “replaced” it in the sense that the new model had a new name – “nano” rather than “mini”. The fact that Apple would cold-bloodedly “replace” a best seller was held as an indication of the company’s relentless pace of innovation. Despite the rhetoric, the Nano was indeed a remarkable breakthrough device, and it certainly upstaged Motorola’s Rokr handset, which was launched alongside it.
Over the following three years, Apple has consistently upgraded its iPod line in September, immediately prior to the holiday sales period. This is probably not indicative of a natural cadence in the pace of Apple’s innovation, but rather a marketing decision that holding back new iPod lines to launch for the holidays maximises hype around the product, and consequently maximises sales. Perhaps. But things are starting to look a little different now, with the economy weakening, and investors getting jittery. During the last economic downturn in the late nineties, Steve Jobs famously said that Apple’s strategy was to innovate its way out of the recession. And there’s no doubting the results that this strategy has achieved. Perhaps now is the time for a similarly bold move. One obvious candidate would be to bring a new iPod product to market now, rather than waiting for the holiday buying season. Whilst such a move may sacrifice some holiday buzz later in the year, it would be preferable to making price cuts to stimulate sales – cuts that would undermine iPod’s price positioning longer term. It would also help to ensure that the iPod line does not lose its lustre, which could potentially lead to a loss in market share.
So, perhaps it’s time to boldly “replace” a best selling iPod line again. And what better candidate than the iPod Nano itself? Whilst the Nano has retained its name for three years now, the product itself has changed substantially. The Nano is now larger than before, with a bigger display and the ability to play video. However, this screen is still relatively small, and it seems doubtful that many Nano owners get much use out of video playback in practice – it’s more of a gimmick than a useful feature. So if the Nano line were to be replaced, what should its successor be? MacPredictions thinks that the answer is twofold: replace the clickwheel interface with a multi-touch display, and with the space saved from the clickwheel, make the screen larger for a better video viewing experience, whilst retaining the device’s overall dimensions. And the name? Of course… iPod Air.
So does multi-touch on the Nano successor imply the introduction of the iPhone OS? Not necessarily. The iPod Air would be too small to support many features of the iPhone OS, including the virtual keyboard and the 20 icon home screen. Given that text entry has never been very important on iPods (and was only recently added, with the introduction of search functionality) the iPod Air can probably do away with the keyboard in favour of a more basic character picker. The 20 icon home screen could be replaced with a 9 icon screen. But this does beg the question – does Apple really want to get into the territory of supporting multiple resolutions on the iPhone OS? Application developers for other mobile devices will know what a pain it is to develop different variants of their games and apps for different devices. The hegemony of Apple’s iPhone platform is one of the attractions of its newly launched SDK.
Whilst there are certainly drawbacks to introducing a second screen size to the iPhone OS line, the benefits are so substantial that MacPredictions believes Apple is likely to do it anyway. The physical dimensions of the iPhone and iPod Touch lines are limited by the physical requirements of the interface – the icons must be large enough to touch with one’s fingers. And yet, the iPhone is quite a large devise, and some customers will always prefer something smaller. The huge popularity of the Nano is also indicative of the appeal of smaller devices. So in order to roll multi-touch out across the entire product line, and in order to introduce the much anticipated “iPhone Nano” at some point, Apple will have no option but to develop a variant of the iPhone OS interface designed for smaller devices.
Coincidentally enough, 9to5Mac published a story today entitled "iPod Air" pointing out that someone had registered the domain name ipodair.com. For a brief moment, it seemed like the whole MacBook Air thing was happening again, but sadly it turns out that Apple were not the registrants of the domain (even though it's currently re-directing to Apple's iTunes page). Previously, Arn from MacRumors registered the macbookair.com domain in advance of the svelte laptop's announcement. This triggered a defensive registration of similar domains by Apple. However, ipodair.com was registered in January, and Apple does not appear to have reacted by registering any variants. Perhaps they're just playing it cool for the time being.