Music To Our Ears?

Today has turned out to be a very exciting day for Apple fans, with an updates triple whammy to keep the punters happy – the Motorola ROKR iTunes phone, iTunes 5 and the iPod nano, the flash-based iPod mini replacement that had been rumoured for weeks.

Motorola ROKR
So the iTunes phone is a reality . Behold the Motorola ROKR, a phone whose nomenclature takes its lead from some of Motorola’s other offerings (i.e. the ultra-thin RAZR) and whose industrial design is perhaps as lacking as Apple’s is beautiful (see disappointed musings here). But it would have been foolish to expect any better – the ROKR is, first and foremost, a Motorola product. So get over the fact that it kinda sucks, and get on with praying that Apple will one day make their own. All in all, it is a Good Thing.

The phone can store up to 100 songs, and so, Jobs says, it is best to consider it something like an iPod shuffle on your phone. Most significant is how music is loaded onto the device – via USB from iTunes, not, as had been rumoured, through downloading tracks from some new 3G data-based iTunes Music Store interface on the phone.

This is interesting. Obviously there were only really two ways for users to get music on to the ROKR – those two cited above. The question is, why has Apple gone for the latter?

Experience probably has quite a lot to do with it. Because you generally know what you are hunting for, the iPod interface works quite well, and so it makes sense for the ROKR to copy that interface for navigating its library (to hell with patent issues). But iTMS is quite a different matter. Much has been said about the brilliance of the iTunes interface, and this extends to the store – users of other online music stores are not gifted such simplicity and elegance.

But the iTMS interface will not translate particularly well to a 176×220 mobile phone screen. The page-width format makes for a very pleasant browsing experience, which is often what customers want when visiting a bricks-and-mortar shop. All this would be lost on the phone, leaving users likely frustrated and Apple’s reputation at least a little tarnished.

With the iTMS-on-phone model, you would also run into issues relating to the 100 song limit. What do you do with songs you don’t want to listen to at present but do not want to delete? Given the link with Apple, it would make sense to be able to transfer them back to iTunes proper, and so you’d need a USB cable…

However, there is one other argument for the iTMS-on-phone route – buying and downloading songs using mobile companies’ new 3G data networks would have netted them an extremely tidy sum. But whilst it may at first seem somewhat surprising that they would have turned this opportunity down, one should consider the cost of transferring 3-5MB of data over these shiny new 3G networks – prohibitive for most (at least in the UK it is; I am unfamiliar with what the average charge per megabyte is in the USA).

So with the benefit of hindsight, the current incarnation makes most sense. It will be interesting to see how well it sells over the next few months…

iTunes 5
iTunes 5 has been announced, and should be available for download shortly, either via Software Update or from the usual place. It is reported to sport a “refined” interface, a new search bar, smart shuffling, organising playlists into subfolders (a nice feature for those of us with far too many to fit on our tiny 12″ screens), Outlook syncing (for Windows users), parental controls (so that songs with explicit lyrics can be barred) and album reviews. Bad news is that it’s still Carbon, and, as pointed out in the comments below, there’s still no gapless playback.

The “refined” interface is the first thing that hits you when you load it up – it’s…”different”. And whilst change can be good, I’m willing to bet that it will invite not a small amount of criticism from user interface diehards like John Gruber. In any case, it was probably time for an update, and word on the street is that (at last), Steve Jobs is starting to get sick of metal.

Going through the feature list, the Outlook syncing is the only other addition which really merits much comment, and only to ask why it wasn’t there before. Perhaps we will see support for Thunderbird and/or Mozilla in due course.

iPod nano
1,000 songs. Impossibly small. iPod nano.

The iPod nano website has all the nitty gritty, and its undeniably impressive. The design, of course, is based on its elder brother, the iPod, bringing a certain uniformity to the line that was lost with the coloured anodised-metal casing sported by the iPod mini. And, to echo the sentiments of a million Goths worldwide, the black one is bloody gorgeous.

The reduction in storage capacity is significant. Presumably due to the cost of flash chips, Apple has elected not to retain an 8GB model, although this will doubtless follow in the future. There is also the possibility that the 8GB model was not selling particularly well, although it does seem more likely that memory prices are the sole reason for this decision.

And what of appealing to the fairer sex with an assortment of colours? It would seem that colour is now out of vogue again – an eerie echo, perhaps, of the demise of the iMac G3. Apple may simply be hoping that black goes with everything, and if it doesn’t, then white surely will. But if we see a hastily introduced range of colours 6 months down the line, then we’ll all know why.

Pretty good effort from Apple today – there’s plenty to be pleased with, and hopefully a bit to keep their bottom line ticking over when CPU sales start to stagnate due to the Intel switch. Hopefully the phone will be the first of many, and other retailers will get in on the act. I for one would very much like to see a Sony Ericsson iTunes phone, but know that the parent company would never allow it – a real shame, as they have a knack for great design, both externally and in their interfaces.

Let’s see how they sell.


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