I wanna rock and roll, all right

David Braue
8 September, 2008
View more articles fromthe author

It being my birthday this week, I’m particularly curious as to what Apple will announce on Tuesday, and whether it might qualify for a treating-myself splurge when we see it in the flesh at the new Apple Store Chadstone on Saturday.

So far, however, the only clue we have to the launch is the invitation caption: ‘let’s rock’.

History, and consensus, suggest this will definitely be Apple’s iPod refresh event for the year. After all, last year’s September launch saw the iPod touch, video-capable iPod nano 3G and iPod classic – all of which breathed new life into a product range that wasn’t exactly flailing to begin with.

A year later, iPhones are in all the stores and the iPod touch continues to impress – so much so that I’m wondering just how much more Apple can add to the devices. The iPod touch is a beautiful piece of equipment that plays music, plays videos, runs applications, and can be played with using your finger. It is the Newton reborn – without the stylus – and it seems to me to be the evolutionary end of the line for the iPod as a device for playing content only.

Just don’t tell that to Apple, whose astounding success has been built on its ability to innovate where others are simply copying. Given the results of Apple’s last major launch – which spawned the MobileMe fiasco that remains perhaps the biggest single stuff-up in Apple’s history – the company knows it has to impress. It also knows it can get only so much love from releasing Yet Another iPod — although fans would likely go nuts for an iPod touch with even more memory and a built-in camera. But in the long term, there is just one place for Apple to go: buttons. And, more to the point, games.

Just fooling around. The App Store already offers lots of cool games that use the iPod touch and iPhone’s accelerometers to roll balls through mazes, steer cars, fly ships, and so on. Yet it cannot have escaped Apple that the most successful handheld gaming platforms in the past – Nintendo’s Gameboy and its spawn – have all had lots and lots of buttons.

The current crop of Apple devices have none, which leads one to the conclusion that Apple’s most logical next step would be to introduce either a sleeve with buttons that accommodates existing iPhone or iPod touch models – or a completely new iPod touch with lots of buttons and a control pad to rival Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP). Or, perhaps, it will add Bluetooth connectivity to the iPod touch and offer a handheld controller that provides two-handed gaming a la the Nintendo Wii’s nunchuck controller.

Apple already has the bits to deliver a winner here: a fanatic user base, strong mindshare in the handheld device market, a ready-made game delivery system (which could be enhanced in the long-rumoured iTunes 8 with a game rental capability).
Issues such as battery life, which is crucial in a handheld gaming platform, could be addressed by building the new devices on low-powered devices such as Intel’s Atom chips (which, in what may be just a strange coincidence totally unrelated to Apple potentially buying large quantities for a new device, are rare as hen’s teeth these days).

Throw in a mobile-optimised 3D graphics subsystem, push the device through Apple’s ever-broader retail channel, and Apple would have given people all the reason they need to buy Yet Another iPod. The fact that Apple’s launch is contemporaneous with the Sunday launch of Spore, one of the year’s most highly-anticipated games and one that is available (in stripped-down form) on the iPod touch/iPhone, can only add fuel to the fire. It can’t hurt, either, that Christmas is just around the corner.

Lounge room heroes. And, what of ‘let’s rock’?

What if this isn’t an invitation to music, but something more along the lines of your favourite action hero looking smugly into the camera, cocking his BFG, then barrelling into a nest of aliens. Can it only be a coincidence that ‘let’s rock’ is a favoured catchphrase of Duke Nukem, that first-person shoot-em-up pioneer whose oft-delayed latest adventure, Duke Nukem Forever, could surface at any time?

The right approach could easily give Apple a completely new growth area for its handheld devices – and kick Sony, which still hasn’t beaten the iPod but has enjoyed success with the PSP, in the pants.

Or, perhaps I’m just dreaming and all we’ll see is an incremental tweak to iTunes and a Def Leppard-branded iPod touch.
While I’m dreaming, maybe Apple isn’t thinking about iPods at all and will use the launch to issue an updated Apple TV that includes real gaming capabilities, Bluetooth controllers and game downloads from the App Store to enable Apple-branded gaming, game and movie rentals, and media playback on your lounge room TV. If Nintendo’s Wii can do it, why can’t Apple?

Beating the PlayStation 3 for sheer gaming grunt would be a hard ask, but Nintendo’s Wii has shown that good games, delivered well, can be just as effective. A good Apple console could be built as a hybrid of the Apple TV and Mac mini, combining solid, fun gaming with a Blu-ray drive, HDMI out, broad application support, and maybe even a good-sized touch-sensitive display screen on the front.

This last thing is something I’ve been waiting for, whenever the Mac mini is updated. Why not have a home theatre component that offers a touch-sensitive iPod-like menu to search through and play iTunes content right on the device? It would be nice to be able to search a networked music collection from the device and play it through the stereo – without having to find the TV remote, turn it on, set the right channel, and so on.

Still dreaming, perhaps ‘let’s rock’ refers to this device having a built-in version of something akin to Guitar Hero III — with the opportunity to buy additional songs (ones you’ve actually heard of) for the game from the iTunes Store. This kind of music-gaming tie-in is the sort of thing that would ignite the imagination, take advantage of the massive iTMS installed base, and push Apple into the lounge room market it so desperately wants — and needs.

There you have it: what Apple should do, what Apple may do, and what Apple could very well do. I, like everybody else, will watch with enthusiasm to see just which next-generation device is launched this week, or whether it’s just a software update that leaves customers unimpressed and analysts scratching their heads.

Nah – Apple knows the stakes are high, and I reckon it will do what it can to rock their world. And ours.

Leave a Comment

Please keep your comments friendly on the topic.

Contact us