Video on your iPod: Revolution or Evolution?

So the iPod now does video. After weeks, perhaps months, of rumours, Apple have finally delighted fans with an enlarged screen and H.264 decompression at 30fps. Oh, and the colour black.

Glorious, n’est-ce pas? Vindication for all the producers of portable video players, non? If Apple is doing it – if Apple is copying them – then it must be a Good Thing. Right?

There will be those amongst the Apple faithful who unquestioningly accept Steve Jobs’s every move. To them, a video iPod is obviously sound strategy, because Steve said it is. But then, there are also those who will recall that not so long ago, Jobs dismissed portable video as irrelevant. They will say that Apple has had to eat crow and give people video, because that’s what the people want. It is this latter stance that I think merits further consideration.

It is true that on numerous occasions, Jobs has said that he does not believe that people are really interested in watching video on the move. Since before the emergence of the first portable video players, members of the press have been asking when the iPod would do video. Each time, Jobs’s response has been pretty much the same.

So what then of this new iPod? Is this a genuine case of missing the boat? Or was Steve just playing down video until Apple were ready?

Actually, it was neither. Like the iPod photo was just an excuse to add a colour screen to the iPod, done because everyone thought they needed one and because every other manufacturer’s players had one, so the iPod video, if I may call it that, is paying lip service to lists of features. Specifications. You know, like point scoring. It also creates an intriguing new revenue stream in the form of video sales through iTMS.

It’s also significant that the latest offering is not called iPod video. This is an iPod – a portable music player – which also happens to play videos. It has a bigger screen, which change is something of a necessity for any kind of video playback feature, but otherwise little is different. Anyone who was expecting Apple to produce a device where, say, the screen took up the entire front of the device will have been disappointed.

The reasons are simple and twofold. Make a screen big enough to be enjoyably watchable, and you can’t carry it around. Make a screen small enough to be portable and you will still be painfully aware of the world around you as you try to watch. And – and this is undoubtedly the more salient issue – video is immersive. It demands your full attention. You cannot drive a car and watch Lost on your iPod – indeed, at least in the UK, it is prohibited by law. You cannot ride a bike and watch Michael Jackson’s Thriller as you pedal along. You cannot jog round the park and watch Desperate Housewives whilst you try to fight the flab.

It is, of course, true, that an iPod video might keep the kids occupied on long journeys (but bring a charger, because look at the battery life!), give a bored commuter something to watch on the train to work, or a sleepless passenger entertainment on a long haul flight. But then in such situations we are brought inescapably back to the screen size issue. It’s just too small.

So what is the new iPod for? Same as every other iPod, first and foremost it is a music player. It now has a few gracefully-incorporated extra features that earlier models didn’t have, but it’s not revolutionary. And most importantly, at least for Steve Jobs anyway, it doesn’t amount to a volte-face on his part. Portable video, he can still safely say, is not something people want just yet. And I, for my part, don’t believe that it ever will be.

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