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Apple Special Event: more and less

Blogged on 2 September 2010

Apple’s annual iPod event was held on Wednesday at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, one of the company’s regular venues, and livecast to press gatherings in locations including London, where my fellow hacks reported a less than stampede-like turnout. (I’m 250 miles away and it wasn’t worth the trip. Oh, and they didn’t invite me.)

For the first time in a while, the event was also publicly webcast live, though this wasn’t announced until the night before, and by using its own HTTP Live Streaming technology Apple effectively restricted access to users of recent Macs and iOS devices, thus making a few people happy while needlessly pissing off the rest of the world. Come to think of it, that would make quite an apt mission statement.

Steve Jobs presenting Special Event, 1 September 2010

Anyway, I watched it on my iPad, and the quality was great, except that in the last half-hour the video rewound itself to the beginning of the event and had to be cajoled back to the correct point, and just before the end it dropped out altogether for several minutes, although, for reasons which will become clear, that was fine with me.

Steve Jobs kicked off by pointing out his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the audience. Woz, though still on the payroll, has a fractious relationship with the company these days, so it was nice to see some chumminess.

And then we were into the usual round of stats about how many people had been shopping in Apple Stores (up to a million a day around the world) and how many iPods and things Apple had sold (275 million iOS devices so far). All very impressive if you like numbers, and a reminder that this is an area where Apple isn’t just a respected niche player but a city-destroying industry Godzilla.

iOS updates

Then Steve kicked off the announcements proper by introducing iOS 4.1, available ‘next week’. This update, apparently, will fix the proximity sensor bug that sometimes makes the iPhone 4 respond to your ear as if it was your finger, a Bluetooth bug that I wasn’t aware of because I long since gave up faffing around with Bluetooth headsets, and the utter failure of iOS 4 to work properly on 3G iPhones, with which, frankly, it should never have been advertised as compatible. There was no mention of magic aerial fixes.

More exciting was news of iOS 4.2, the update that will bring iOS 4 functionality like multitasking to the iPad for the first time; Steve confirmed the widely predicted launch date of November, and insisted on demoing some of the features, causing a shuffling of feet among audience members who were already thoroughly familiar with them from the iPhone 4. Still, at least we know it works.

One major addition in 4.2 is built-in support for printing (via Wi-Fi, since the iPad lacks any other connections), currently only possible with third party apps. We were shown how ‘simple’ it would be to print pages, but not how, or indeed whether, we’d be able to choose what size and shape of paper to print on, how big, with what quality settings, and so on. Sorting this out would require some serious liaison with printer makers, who might well prefer to devote their efforts to creating their own iPad apps. Not sorting it out would severely limit the usefulness of the print function. Hmm.

HDR photography in iOS 4.1

HDR photography

Going back to 4.1, iPhone users now get built-in HDR (high dynamic range) comping for photos. This is a really great idea, particularly with the excellent camera in the iPhone 4. Turn the option on, and when you press the shutter the software takes three shots with different exposures. Rather than letting you choose between them (bracketing, in traditional photographic jargon), it combines them intelligently to create one shot in which shadows aren’t muddied by under-exposure yet nor are highlights blown out by over-exposure.

Having this option readily available, with zero effort, is bound to increase the already high proportion of great shots achieved by the iPhone 4. There is, of course, a risk that people will leave it turned on regardless, and the synthetic tone-mapping that makes purists tut-tut about HDR will give their family albums the sickly psychedelic sheen of a drug-induced nightmare. Let’s hope they don’t do that.

Game Center

The final iOS innovation announced was Game Center, a set of multi-player APIs for developers fronted by an app that lets users manage their contacts and scores. This was demoed at length, but you can pretty much guess the stuff it does. Epic Games’ Mike Capps was wheeled out to show a not-quite-ready Unreal Engine game for iOS, which I immediately hoped would be Unreal Tournament but in fact was a swordfighting-based RPG. It did look stunning, with real-time rendering of high-res 3D worlds and characters and, as Capps pointed out, ‘intricate levels of detail that you just don’t expect to see on a phone device’. It’ll be out for Christmas on iPod touch, iPhone and iPad.

Project Sword (Epic Games)

And so, following the well-worn path of Jobs keynotes, to the new products. Steve began by announcing, to genuine surprise, that every single iPod model had been updated. This turned out not to include the classic, prompting feverish speculation that the last remaining hard disk-based iPod had been axed, but in fact the current model is being retained; Steve must have forgotten about it. (The fact that Steve forgot about it doesn’t bode particularly well for its future.)

Let’s take the other models in order, from smallest/cheapest to biggest/priciest.

iPod shuffle 4G

iPod shuffle

The fourth generation iPod shuffle is basically the second generation iPod shuffle with one end shaved off. Like the producers of the Terminator movies, Apple evidently realised it had gone a bit wrong with the third one. So the clickwheel-style control pad is back (moving all the controls to the supplied headphone cable was not a popular decision), as is the choice of coloured finishes, but you also get the 3G’s VoiceOver, a text-to-speech function that reads you track names to make up for the lack of a display. The unit is now square, with the circular control pad filling the whole of the front, and the back featuring the same large clip to fasten the shuffle to your bag, belt or pocket.

iPod shuffle 4G
At £39 it’s an impulse buy, and its tiny shiny cuboid jewel box reinforces its instant desirability. With four colours available as well as silver, I can see it appealing to people who don’t habitually buy Apple stuff, or even tech stuff in general; people who maybe use a BlackBerry because it’s good for texting, and don’t see the point in the iPhone’s apps and iBooks and so on, but know a cute accessory when they see one. All right, women. I’m talking about women. They’ll like this. It’s not so much a gadget, more a brooch that you can plug headphones into.

So far, so uncontroversial. The new nano is a different matter.

Apple iPod screen prototype

iPod nano

A couple of months ago, pictures leaked out of what looked like a 3cm touchscreen. It was labelled Apple, and dated 2009, implying that it had been in development long enough to be close to shipping. But what was it for? Among other suggestions – a secondary display for the MacBook, along the lines of the not-much-seen Windows SideShow? – the most likely application was a new iPod.

Indeed, a slightly larger shuffle with a screen would have made a certain amount of sense. But no! Here’s that mystery screen in its final incarnation, and it’s not the shuffle, it’s the nano.

iPod nano 6G
The first thing that strikes me about this is that the product seems barely more finished than the prototype. What the heck is going on with those screen corners? The radius is clumsily big, and the difference in width between the sides and the top and bottom just looks wrong. This is more like something from a no-brand OEM than Apple. I’m sure the manufacturing quality will be lovely, but the design is several iterations away from working.

As Steve explained on the podium, the rationale behind the touchscreen was that the nano couldn’t get any smaller and still accommodate both the clickwheel and the screen. But this nano doesn’t fulfil that brief. While it sensibly combines the display and control requirements, it shrinks the screen dramatically compared to the previous model. In doing so, it slashes its functionality.

iPod nano 5G

You could turn your fourth or fifth generation nano (above) sideways and play movies. Video looked good, and thanks to the relatively low resolution – automatically taken into account when syncing movies via iTunes – required modest amounts of memory. With the 5G, you could even shoot your own video, thanks to the built-in camera. This made the nano the perfect choice for my 10-year-old, at a reasonably save-uppable £109.

The clever new multi-touch nano has none of this. It’s strictly for music, and the screen is only for selecting tracks. The user interface looks like iOS, but it’s not; it’s a mockup, with bits of the same graphics but only a very limited (and fixed) range of functions. Like the shuffle, the sixth generation nano comes in colours and clips to your pants. But at £129 (for 8GB, or £159 for 16) it does much, much less than its predecessor for more money – a particularly glaring anomaly when most of today’s announcements were all about delivering more for less.

I just don’t get it.

iPod touch

For good or ill, both of these redesigns were radical, so it was almost disappointing to see the new iPod touch looking no different from its predecessor. It still has the curved back, similar to the iPhone 3G, but is even thinner, which is remarkable given that it already felt scarily thin; you need Apple-grade build quality to get away with this and not feel flimsy.
New iPod touch
Specs-wise, however, it’s anything but a disappointment. Short of 3G and GPS, just about all the iPhone 4’s features have been incorporated: the amazingly sharp Retina Display, the gyroscope for tilt-based games, the front-facing camera, FaceTime video chat (with other iPod touch or iPhone 4 users), and even a rear camera too for shooting video, though you don’t get the 5 megapixel stills. As with the iPhone 4, the built-in Camera app lets you trim clips, and you can download the £2.99 iMovie app for more advanced editing.

As Steve announced, the iPod touch is already outselling the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP combined, and this version gives it even more conspicuous advantages over other handheld devices. The only catch is the price: at £189, the base model is significantly pricier than before and nearly twice as much as a DSi, and its 8GB memory is barely enough for a modest collection of apps, music and photos, let alone movies. There’s no 16GB, and the £249 32GB unit will be beyond the means of many parents this year, however persistently pestered.

Then again, with a hundred thousand apps available, most at prices from free to a fiver, the cost of ownership could actually work out much better than paying less for a handheld console and shelling out £25 a pop for games. It’s a point Apple seems reluctant to press – competing on price is not really its style – but one that perhaps needs to be made if those vertiginous sales figures are going to keep climbing.

New Apple TV

Apple TV

Of course, there always has to be One More Thing, and on this occasion it was the much-anticipated revamp of Apple TV. There’d been rumblings about the whole basis of Apple’s service: it would be renamed ‘iTV’ over the protests of ITV; there would be major new content tie-ups; Steve would wave his hands and the entire world of television as we know it would disappear in a puff of smoke.

In reality, the most dramatic change was to the box, which shrinks from set-top to tobacco-tin size and is slashed in price to an almost-too-good-to-be-true $99, translated into a slightly cheeky £99. You can now stream content easily to it over Wi-Fi from a Mac or iOS device – Steve played a movie on an iPad, then switched the output to Apple TV with a couple of taps – and it supports HD, if you’re prepared to accept that 720p is HD. It does nice slideshowy things with your photos, and plays content from YouTube, Flickr and MobileMe galleries too.

The problem is that there still isn’t enough content available in the UK to make this a viable way to get the bulk of your entertainment. A tie-up with Netflix brings a bigger catalogue to US viewers, but the deals haven’t been done yet here. Similar issues blight the content already on the iTunes Store. After watching the Apple event tonight and before writing this, I fancied seeing a film; of the first six that sprang to mind, two weren’t listed at all, and the other four only in the US. (Ironically, several were European films.)

And the TV shows highlighted in the US blurb – 99¢ per view – are, predictably, completely absent from the UK version.

So changing the face of home entertainment will have to wait a little longer. But the new Apple TV is a very cute little machine, and £99 really is a surprisingly low price, so it’ll certainly get a foothold in more homes.

iTunes 10

Complementing all the above devices is, as usual, a new version of iTunes. This incorporates a major new feature that Steve was very excited about, called Ping. It’s a social network for iTunes users. Artists can post messages, pictures and videos for their fans – we saw Lady GaGa doing so – and fans in turn can ‘follow’ them (remind you of anything?) and post messages to each other.

The glaring problem with this is that nobody needs yet another social network. I’ve neglected Facebook almost completely since getting into Twitter. If I’m going to comment on anything, I want to do it via Twitter, where I already have followers and habitually throw out thoughts, share information and start discussions. I can’t see myself bothering to fiddle with something in iTunes too. Others may think differently, and Ping does link to Facebook, which the young folk seem keen on these days. But Steve’s enthusiastic pitch reminded me worryingly of other business types extolling the virtues of social media while hopelessly failing to get it. Time will tell.

I’d like to say the Special Event finished there. Sadly, they wheeled out Coldplay’s Chris Martin as the closing act. He was on his own, presumably because the rest of the band wouldn’t be seen dead at a geeky corporate event, and accompanied himself on the piano, an instrument with which he didn’t appear to be very familiar. Having eventually found most of the chords to Yellow, though not necessarily in the right order, he managed a superb moment of Les Dawson harmony failure in the next track, and it was all downhill from there.

Chris Martin at Apple's music event

Fortunately the webcast, which had stuttered a bit towards the end, gave up completely at this point, sparing us and Chris any more embarrassment.

The verdict

This was one of Apple’s most product-packed events in years, with exciting improvements to the iPod touch, nice tweaks to the shuffle, interesting new software features and a much bigger cut to both the size and the price of Apple TV than anyone had expected. I’m not convinced by the new nano, but it’s certainly different. And webcasting the event made it feel much more inclusive. Thumbs up.

All photos © Apple, reproduced as permitted for publicity purposes

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Apple’s Special Event: my thoughts, as written by someone else » Revert to Saved: Candid commentary on games, DVDs, music and technology by Craig Grannell
2 September 2010 at 10:02 am

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Thatkeith 2 September 2010 at 9:39 am

Good point about ‘yet another social network’ - although being one where the client is on (almost) everyone’s computers already and is something (almost) everyone uses already gives it one hell of a boost from the starting blocks. Damn elegant leveraging, that.

Stan Mercer 2 September 2010 at 12:33 pm

Nobody seems to have noticed the bizarre decision to eliminate the 4GB Shuffle and reduce the maximum capacity to 2GB, despite the thing now being three times the size.

Adam 2 September 2010 at 12:47 pm

@Stan: You’re right, I hadn’t noticed, and it is mad. Flash memory isn’t even that expensive. I’d guess they must have been really struggling to hit the price point they wanted. Odd.

It’s not actually three times bigger than the 3G, it’s only a one-third increase in volume :)

Craig Grannell 2 September 2010 at 1:10 pm

@Keith: The thing is, how many people actually spend time *in* iTunes? All the Windows users I know hate iTunes with a passion; Mac users don’t care for it much either, and the Store has historically been flaky as hell.

Compare that to Facebook (reasonable online, great on iOS) and Twitter (50 bajillion clients, so access it however you want) and Ping looks like a very odd proposition.

On the iPod shuffle, I doubt it’s a price-point thing—it’s Apple effectively ‘unblurring’ the lines. Want a cheap player? Buy the shuffle. One model reduces indecision when purchasing, including people avoiding purchase for fear of making a mistake. Want more capacity and a screen? Buy the nano. Want apps and video? Get an iPod touch.

The main grumble I have is that the low-end touch should either have a higher capacity (presumably avoided to stop the low-end iPhone looking even more expensive) or lower price-point to continue battling with the PSP (core around $200, go regularly discounted down from $249 to $200) and DSi ($170).

Josh 2 September 2010 at 3:25 pm

RE the Touch, i’d have preferred a decent camera on the back, i think that is the most disappointing aspect of the otherwise worthy update. Don’t care about Facetime, and they should ditch the 8gb version and give you 16gb for that price.

Remind me what Chris Martin’s daughter’s called again?

Adam 2 September 2010 at 3:38 pm

@Josh She’s called Dell Google Martin, if I remember rightly.

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