Some of the Less Positive Aspects of the Apple Event

September 3rd, 2010

On the whole, it appears that Apple is getting great marks for its fall musical event, where a new lineup of iPods debuted. And, despite using a guitar on the invitation (denoting only music), Apple also upgraded its favorite hobby product, the Apple TV.

It seems, as usual, that some members of the media have concerns about the gear Apple presented, and deeper concerns about some of the features and perhaps products that weren’t part of the agenda, such as a new iLife and perhaps an upgrade for the aging MacBook Air. Certainly there are valid points to raise, or at least they seem valid on the surface.

Take the fact that the new iPod nano doesn’t let you view movies, nor take videos. Why would Apple remove two perfectly useful features? Was it all a compromise to switch to a square case design, or was there a deeper purpose in their removal?

One area in which Apple excels is knowing not just what features to add, but which to omit, or perhaps to remove. So in this case, the powers that be decided that you didn’t need an iPod nano with a camcorder, or even with the ability to watch videos. In a sense, the nano is returning to its roots as it were, as a device primarily designed for listening rather than watching. The only thing you’re meant to watch is the touchscreen interface, or perhaps a photo from your library. Clearly Apple also deemed the presence of an FM radio and Nike+ to be useful.

Now I suppose it could be argued that Apple was greedy, and removed the other features strictly to save dollars, although having such a small form factor might have made it difficult to add a camera. Or maybe, just maybe, their market research indicated that the vast majority of customers really didn’t care about movies and making videos, so they went bye-bye. It might have been nice to see a lower price as well, but I am not about to guess what the production costs and profit margins might be.

The other issue is the touchscreen itself, although it looks real nice. You see, with physical controls, you can learn to reach inside your pocket and actually control the functions once you get a sense of where the buttons are situated. But with a touchscreen, you have to actually see the virtual buttons first. Now maybe I’m making too much of a deal over this, but it seems like a shortcoming.

In the end, if the iPod nano tanks in the marketplace, Apple’s decision will have been shown to be unwise. But it may also be a hot seller, which would vindicate Apple’s approach.

When it comes to the iPod touch, having an HD camcorder capability, and a front-facing camera for FaceTime, brings the product ever closer in concept to the iPhone — without the contract, as Steve Jobs says. But why not go the whole hog and add a real five megapixel camera, for sharp photos? I cannot imagine it would increase the bill of materials all that much, nor somehow cannibalize sales from the iPhone. It’s not as if the target markets really overlap all that much.

As far as the Apple TV is concerned, one complaint I’ve heard on several occasions is the fact that there’s no internal storage to speak of. I expect there’s enough memory to handle routine buffering ahead of video playback, but that’s all.

Every product has its compromises, and the price of a tiny form factor and super cheap price meant something had to go, and storage had to be at the top of the list. But since you’re meant to stream content from your Mac, PC, or the cloud, there’s nothing to be concerned about. Besides, once Apple’s gigantic new data center is online, it may push even more of your stuff to the cloud, even your iTunes stuff, although I rather suspect you’ll still be able to have backup storage on your computer.

The real question, though, is just how many people will adopt the Apple TV. It’s not as if people have been clamoring for yet another set-top box, and that may be one nasty fact that Google doesn’t quite comprehend as they try to generate interest for Google TV. I’m not altogether sure why you’d need one, whether built in to your TV, deployed as yet another set-top box, or as a software upgrade from your cable or satellite provider.

Clearly the Apple TV may not serve everyone’s needs. It appears to be useful as an alternate content device, not a replacement for your current products. Indeed, I wonder why I’d want to pay 99 cents for a TV show if I already have a DVR. Yeah, I suppose if I forget to record a show, I’m afforded a second chance to see it, or I have an opportunity to see it again. Of course, there are other streaming services available, even free ones if you can tolerate the ads. When it comes to movies, I think most needs are largely met by cable or satellite services, plus a video rental service.

But that doesn’t mean Apple TV is destined to fail. The previous version earned a profit for Apple, and, at $99, the new model is a fairly casual purchase, particularly for the holidays. Time will tell whether or not Apple can remove the hobby label.

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13 Responses to “Some of the Less Positive Aspects of the Apple Event”

  1. DaveD says:

    I would bet that there were a lot of yawns when a hard drive, FireWire, Mac-only MP3 player capable of holding 1,000 songs was presented in late 2001 when the economy was tanking.

  2. Steve Paris says:

    I too would have loved to see an iPod touch with an iPhone 4’s 5MP camera but physics got in the way: it’s obvious that Apple are obsessed with everything being more and more thin (if they weren’t a company, I’d be concerned about their health and try to get them to see a doctor). As a result, the new iPod touch is even thinner than its predecessor. From what I recall, last year’s version didn’t have a camera although it was obvious when taken apart that one had been considered. What I believe stopped it from happening was that the quality wouldn’t have been good enough because the device was too thin to house a good camera. Technology has moved on in a year and now, we have an HD video camera in an even thinner iPod… but a shockingly bad stills camera.

    Look at the iPhone 4: it’s much thicker than the iPod touch. You can’t put its camera into the iPod.

    I would have loved to see a thicker high-end “iPod touch pro” with a 5MP camera, but that’s only because I can’t afford an iPhone contract 🙁

    As it stands, I did order two new iPod touches. They’re close to my dream device and way ahead of my first generation iPod touch which can’t even use iOS 4. It was time to move on and start saving for Apple’s 2012 Music Event 🙂

    • @Steve Paris, Yes, it sounds like a form over function discussion. 🙂


      • Travis Butler says:

        @Gene Steinberg, depends on how you define ‘form’ and ‘function’. 🙂

        My guess is that since a camera in something like the Touch (or last year’s Nano) will never even come close to the quality of a good point-and-shoot camera*, people who care about photo quality will never be satisfied; in which case, it makes sense to give a higher weighting to the functional utility of size and weight.

        *The laws of physics make it literally impossible to fit a quality low-light lens, let alone optical zoom, into something the size of the Touch, or even the iPhone. Even the folded-light-path optical zoom systems in some pocket cameras, like the old Minolta DiMAGE X series, requires a body three times thicker than the Touch and twice as thick as the iPhone 4.

        • jase says:

          @Travis Butler, I have a nice little compact Panasonic Lumix ZS3 10.1 Megapixel, 12x zoom camera with a Leica lens and beautiful HD video, which came out last year. But to be honest, I hardly ever use it except for vacations or special events. My iPhone 3GS is good enough as a still camera, it shoots pretty good video, and most importantly, it is always with me. I also like the fact that I can easily send photos as text messages or emails, as well as post my photos to the web. The 3.5 inch view screen is nice with touch to focus, as are the many software apps from the app store that can enhance my camera’s capabilities.

          The thing is, if Apple had released the new IPod Touch with the 5MP camera and LED flash from the iPhone 4, then they would have been in a great position to grab a large chunk of the compact camera market. And that is no small market! It would have also greatly benefited all of the developers who sell photography-related apps on the App Store. And honestly, if they had needed to slightly increase the thickness of the iPod Touch to accommodate the camera, then who cares? I doubt if there are many owners of the iPhones who consider the thickness to be a major burden. Apple could have used the additional thickness to add a slightly larger battery or maybe gain some heat dissipation advantages from the slightly greater internal volume.

          An iPhone 4 (or a potential iPod Touch) with the 5MP camera, HDR and other software enhancements that are available as apps, HD video camera, 3.5 inch viewfinder/retina display, LED flash, great battery life, A4 processor, plenty of flash memory to hold your images and HD video, internet connectivity, etc., etc., makes for a very compelling competitor in the compact camera market. I think that Apple missed an opportunity to turn the iPod touch into a powerhouse competitor in the compact camera market.

          • Travis Butler says:

            @jase, Er… I’m not quite sure what to say to this. Even with the features and quality of the iPhone 4 camera, I think it’s pretty ludicrous to think that an upgraded Touch could capture even a tiny fraction of the compact camera market. There are multiple compact cameras available from names like Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Kodak and Sony that sell for half the price of the Touch, have optical zoom lenses, much better picture-taking ergonomics, and notably higher picture quality than even the iPhone 4 camera. The Touch can’t compete on price, can’t compete on ease of photographic use, can’t compete on quality, and doesn’t even have the advantage of ‘a phone is always with you.’

            Yes, I have on occasion used my 3GS to take pictures because it was there in my pocket. With very, very few exceptions, I’ve been disappointed with the picture quality and would much rather have used my Lumix TZ3. At most, it’s been a camera of opportunity. And while I know the iPhone 4 camera is significantly improved, I have trouble imagining how anyone who really cares about picture quality would be satisfied relying on the iPhone 4 camera instead of a real digicam.

            Remember the people last year talking about how the video camera on the Nano was going to kill the Flip video cameras? That apparently worked so well that Apple dropped the feature this year…

            • jase says:

              @Travis Butler,Thanks for the reply. You bring up some good points.

              To reply to a couple of your points, I think the problem with the iPod nano video camera is that I understand that it is lower quality even compared to the videocamera on the 3GS. Personally, as long as there is adequate light, I think the 3GS does a very nice job with video, and I am happier with the video of the 3GS than I am with the still photos.

              The fact is that people do take tons of photos and video with their iPhone camera, and the iPhone is the number 1 camera used on Flickr.

              An iPod Touch with the camera features of iPhone 4 would not beat most compact digital cameras based solely on the camera functions, but the still camera and HD video are good enough for many occasions, and of course the iPod Touch does so much more than take still photos and video.

              Most people have limited funds to spend on electronics, so the more value you can get out of a device, the better. Personally, if I wanted a camera and I only had $300-$400 to spend on some sort of gadget, and if the iPod Touch with iPhone 4 camera features were available to purchase, then I would pick the iPod Touch every time over the same amount of money spent on a digital camera. And if I did not own an iPhone, I would carry an iPod touch with me all the time.

              The iPhone 4 as a camera also has strengths that most compact digital cameras do not have, such as a 3.5 inch retina display that acts as both a viewfinder with touch to focus capability, and it also acts as a nice display to view photos and videos when you are not in front of your PC or Television. Also, the range of photo-related software apps from the App store adds utility. The ability to use the idevice to connect to the internet, upload photos to facebook, flickr, twitter, easily email photos to your friends, etc. adds value to people who use digital cameras.

              Here is one comparison review of the iPhone 4 camera quality vs. a Canon S90 and some other camera phones:

              and another review of iPhone 4 camera features with samples:

              I’m not saying that you are wrong, and I surely would rather take photos with a Canon S90. But my point is that many people would choose to redirect their limited money from buying a dedicated camera to purchasing an iPod Touch and relying on it for most of their camera needs, if the iPod Touch were equipped with the iPhone 4 camera and LED flash. And if I did not own an iPhone, I would take about 80% fewer photos and video, because I never seem to want to carry my Panasonic Lumix ZS-3 with me all the time.

  3. Janna says:

    I think the iPod nano is the right move. At least for me, it makes a lot of sense. I had an iPod touch that I used for everything, but was always frustrated by the lack of phone, texting, camera, and 3G. It definitely made me want an iPhone, and when iPhone 4 came out I got one. I planned on using my iPod touch for running and playing music in my car (to prevent my iPhone from being drained or dropped) but it got damaged and died. I was really sad about it (it was a gift for grad school). The new iPod nano would fit these functions perfectly, without having all of the extra functions I would no longer use on the iPod touch. Believe it or not, the new iPod nano may, in a way, be an accessory to the iPhone. Who really wants a camera on their iPod anyways? Apple is smart, and it makes so much sense that they waited a couple of months to launch the new iPod touch. It shuffled everyone into buying an iPhone, and suddenly now they have created a demand for a lighter, smaller, iPhone-like iPod. Now if only it were cheaper.

  4. Gary H says:

    I’ve preordered my Apple TV. I am not usually one to jump quickly on a new product release, but as you mention it’s a casual purchase. The low price makes it easier for me to treat it as an experiment. I am a holdover with a Power Mac G4 so I can’t get HDMI to my flatscreen TV, much less play any HD content smoothly on my computer. But I recently returned my Comcast HD DVR because the whole setup and service was getting just too expensive, and my TV has stayed off since July. I admit I didn’t research the alternatives but the AppleTV combined with Netflix seems like a simple, cheap way to go. And with the “AirPlay” capability coming in the near future, I think it will be a great way to share media with my parents when I go their house by bringing my iPhone and AppleTV.

  5. Terry says:

    You’re bang on as usual Gene. The touch screen on the Nano is a non starter. If I’m working out at the gym with my Nano strapped to my bicep, I can change the settings without stopping the treadmill. Oh yes, and then there’s the shape change that necessitates buying new accessories (like arm bands).

    • jase says:

      @Terry, Maybe they should have left the old Nano unchanged for sale, or perhaps slightly refreshed but with the same form factor. That way, they could let the marketplace decide which Nano the customers prefer, the new touch screen Nano or the previous form factor with video camera and buttons and video playback.

    • Travis Butler says:

      @Terry, To note:

      The new Nano does have a clip built-in, like the Shuffle, and is not much heavier (21 grams vs. 12 grams for the Shuffle and 101 grams for the Touch); if you don’t have a shirt-sleeve to clip it to, it ought to clip on to just about any armband or strip of cloth you’d care to use.

      And it comes with the same headphone controls as the Shuffle, so you can play/pause/volume right from there. I still prefer the click-wheel for extensive control, but the headphone controls might be more convenient for simple stuff.

  6. Kaleberg says:

    Dropping storage from the Apple TV makes sense. If you want video storage, you can use your desktop, your laptop, your iPod, your iPhone, a dedicated MacMini, one of those networked servers or you can rely on an offsite server. That’s an awful lot of options, and you don’t have to manually manage the tiny (by video standards) Apple TV cache. That was awfully clunky. The new Apple TV is just like an Apple Express with Airtunes, except it has a user interface to pull in video rather than making you use a computer.

    In the late 70s, I went to visit a friend’s startup, and they had little PDP 11/05’s all over the place. They were actually pretty big, but they were little by computer standards back then. I asked my friend what they did, as they were doing all of their real work on other platforms. “They’re the computer science equivalent of a piece of wire”, he said. Basically, they were network routers, pieces of wire one used for connecting things. The Apple TV is yet another computer science equivalent of a piece of wire to connect television sets to networks.

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