Analysis: Putting Apple’s musical moves into perspective

Jim Dalrymple
10 September, 2008
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It’ll be several months until we see whether the products Apple announced at Tuesday’s music-dominated press event will keep cash registers rocking long into December. But analysts who track every move to come out of Cupertino say that Apple has put itself in position for a strong end to 2008.

“This was a strong event for Apple,” said Van Baker, research vice president of retail and manufacturing for IT analysis firm Gartner. “The iPod offerings are very robust. It makes it tough for other companies to compete.”

Tuesday’s press event continued Apple’s recent tradition of overhauling its iPod offerings just as shoppers are starting to draw up their holiday lists. While Apple didn’t unveil anything radical Tuesday—the most significant changes were a new case and features for the iPod nano, some improvements to the iPod touch, and an update to the iTunes music application and online store—analysts said it would be a mistake to dismiss the releases as no big deal.

“These are evolutionary products with revolutionary features,” said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of market research firm Jupitermedia and editor of the MobileDevicesToday blog. “Apple has done it again.”

Take the new-look iPod nano that led the changes to Apple’s iPod roster. The thinnest iPod ever built, the nano comes in 8GB and 16GB capacities, priced at $199 and $279, respectively.

But even though the top-end capacity of the nano doubled to 16GB while the price for the largest model stayed the same, this is no mere storage bump. “The nano has been our most popular iPod,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of worldwide iPod product marketing. “The fourth generation gives people the best of both worlds.”

To that end, the nano also adopted some of the features of the higher-end iPod touch, such as an accelerometer that lets people change the orientation of the screen merely by tilting the music player. And shaking the nano causes the device to switch to shuffle mode.

Wondering how you’ll be able to exercise without continually shuffling your music every time the nano gets jostled? According to Joswiak, the nano will only enter shuffle mode when the screen is active—in other words if you let your screen go to sleep, it will not shuffle. The feature can also be disabled if the nano is locked.

“It’s not that Apple added an accelerometer in the device—anyone can do that,” said Gartenberg. “It’s that they actually did something with it that makes it special.”

That’s not to say that the nano and touch are now on equal footing. The former doesn’t have a touchscreen and it can’t run applications like the iPod touch can. Then again, the nano appeals to a different segment of the iPod-buying audience. And Joswiak feels that Apple is covering its bases with the features and form factor of the current line-up.

While the touch and the slightly rejiggered iPod classic continue to sport a monochromatic color scheme, the nano joins the iPod shuffle line as the most colorful of Apple’s musical offerings. The nano comes in a variety of colors including purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, pink, and silver. (Apple quietly updated the shuffle line by adding more vibrant versions of the colors already available for the 1GB and 2GB music players.)

The nano’s new color scheme is more important than you might think, according to Ross Rubin, director of analysis at market-research firm NPD Group. Multiple colors can be a key selling point heading into the holiday shopping season. The ability for parents to personalise a gift by color increases the chances of sales, he said.

“Apple is really good at making sexy products,” said Gartner’s Baker. “They understand the market extremely well and they know what makes people excited about their products.”

As for the iTunes 8 update released by Apple Tuesday, the feature that has analysts talking is Genius, which automatically generates playlists when you select a song based on the artist, genre, and other criteria. Even though making a playlist in iTunes is a pretty simple procedure, Rubin said anything that takes complexity out of the consumers hands is a good thing for the product.

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