mac.column.ted: Moving on up: The new iPods

mac.column.ted: Moving on up: The new iPods

[Plus: Macworld Expo: past and future]

by Ted Landau

This another two-topic column. The first part considers the merits of replacing a perfectly working second generation iPod for one of the new fourth generation models. I consider some other iPod issues along the way -- and even throw in a music-related mention of the AirPort Express. The second part continues my reflections on Macworld Expo following the event that ended last month in Boston.

Moving on up: The new iPods

I replace my Macs about every 3 to 4 years. As I have two Macs, a desktop and a PowerBook, it actually works out that I am replacing one or the other of these Macs at a rate of every 1 to 2 years. For many Mac users, upgrading this often is not essential. But if you use a computer as much as I do, it is almost essential.

In contrast, when I got my first iPod (a second generation model a few years ago), I did not anticipate ever having to replace it. Okay, if Apple came out with a completely overhauled model, one that could edit appointments and addresses like a PDA, or one with a color screen that could allow you to upload games, like a Nintendo GameBoy -- yes, I would want and likely get a new one. But as long as the iPod remained primarily a music player, I figured I would keep mine until it broke -- or at least until the battery failed to hold a charge. I was certainly not going to get a new iPod just to get a new built-in game or to take advantage of a redesigned location of the iPod's buttons.

A couple of weeks ago, I plunked down the cash for a new fourth generation iPod. Even though my current iPod still works great and the battery still holds its charge.

So where exactly did my logic go astray? In several ways:

First, the introduction of the iPod Dock together with the redesign of the shape of the iPod meant that I was increasingly getting shut out of the newer peripheral devices for the iPod. True, many peripherals still come in two versions, one for the "classic" iPod and one for the newer design. But some do not. And the ones designed for the older iPods are harder to find (you certainly won't find them in an Apple Store!). Especially limiting are peripherals that only work with the updated hardware and software used in the latest models. For example, if I wanted to use Belkin's Voice Recorder or Media Reader, my old iPod would not do.

An additional incentive to get a new iPod is the new software features exclusively available with the new iPods. When Apple first came out with iPod Software 2.x for third-generation iPods, the feature I most coveted was to be able to create an On-The-Go Playlist directly on the iPod. I figured Apple would soon come out with an upgraded version of the software that would provide that option for my trusty old iPod. No such luck. The original iPods are still stuck at version 1.x of the software -- and it only gets updated to accommodate features that are in Apple's interest to provide - such as to ensure compatibility with iTunes Music Store purchases. Only if you have a third generation model can you get the features available in the 2.x version of the software. With the fourth generation models, iPod Software 3.x adds multiple On-The-Go Playlists and a one-click Shuffle Songs option. I would not hold my breath waiting to see these features appear in any older iPod models.

{MacFixIt_StoryBox}

Apple admits that, if it truly wanted, it could update the older iPods to include the new features. It's just that, due to internal hardware differences between the generational models, it would require a separate software project to write the code. Apple has decided this is not worth the "effort." Of course, the common assumption is that Apple also doesn't do it because these new features, by being exclusive to the new models, encourage people to buy a new iPod. I can't fault Apple's logic here. It worked in my case. I resisted the urge to get a new iPod when the third generation came out. But I finally gave in when the new models were released last month.

Now, admittedly, I work with Macs for a living, so it's perhaps easier for me to justify spending money on a new iPod: I needed it so I could use it as the basis for a column such as this one! At least that's how I justify it to my skeptical spouse. And I now anticipate that I will be getting a new iPod every few years, whether I "need" it or not. Alas, it's a sacrifice I will just have to make.

Of course, now that I have a new iPod, I temporarily have an opposite problem: iPod peripherals that are too old to work with the new model. In particular, the iPod case I want to get does not fit the new model. (It has holes where the row of buttons used to be!) I've been told to expect a new version of the case within a few weeks. Oh, the agonies of an early adopter!

Apple's iPod dilemma: to license or not? Recently, it was reported that "two big US copy protection specialists, Macrovision and SunnComm are both touting the idea that they need to become Apple iPod compliant." Their problem is that, in order to become compliant, they pretty much need Apple to license its FairPlay DRM system (this is the copy-protection system used by the iPod for songs downloaded from iTunes). Apple has so far resisted. It's a classic dilemma for Apple. Do you license the technology, which probably means that other MP3 players besides the iPod will work with iTunes? If so, this could result in a decline in iPod sales. On the other hand, if Apple declines these sorts of overtures, it takes the risk that another more "open" technology (such as the one coming from Microsoft) becomes dominant and precipitates a shrinkage of Apple's market share both in hardware (iPod) and software (iTunes).

Does this all sound a bit familiar? Yup, it is essentially the same dilemma Apple faced back in the 1980's when it had to decide whether or not to license the Mac OS. Apple decided against licensing, and so here we are today with Apple relegated to a less than 5% market share. Of course, who's to say what unintended consequences of licensing the Mac OS might have been. A big part of the reason that Macs can claim superiority over PCs is that the same company that makes the Mac software also makes the Mac hardware. Had Apple licensed the Mac OS, it might have prevented the emergence of Windows -- and the Mac OS could be the dominant OS today. But we might also have a far duller OS and much less exciting hardware than Apple now makes.

The fact that iPods and iTunes already work both with Macs and PCs makes the current situation more favorable for Apple than for the OS dilemma. I'm going to go out on a limb here: I think Apple is much smarter and better positioned than it was last time around. I am betting that Apple will have to struggle but will come through this with its market lead intact.

Meanwhile, RealNetworks just threw Apple an unexpected curve ball. Without Apple's permission, it has unilaterally released software, called Harmony, that allows "people to buy and download songs from its online music store and then play them on [an] iPod." Apple shot back that Harmony is the result of the "tactics and ethics of a hacker." What will happen when all the dust settles remains to be seen. But it's gonna be interesting to watch.

AirPort Express troubleshooting Catch-22. In addition to a new iPod, I also got an AirPort Express this month (yes, it's New Toy Month here at our household). I connected it to my audio/video receiver in my living room, intending to use the Express primarily for its AirTunes (iTunes music streaming) feature.

I already had an AirPort Base Station network set up in my home. The Base Station wirelessly connects an iMac and a PowerBook to my local Ethernet network. The Base Station is connected via an Ethernet cable to my Power Mac G4 (which does not have an AirPort card).

Initially, I tried to configure the Express via my Power Mac. I quickly discovered that the AirPort Express Assistant software, designed to walk you through setting up an Express, would not work with my Power Mac -- because the Assistant will only run on Macs that have an AirPort card installed. So instead, I set up the Express from my AirPort-card-containing PowerBook.

But suppose I did not have any Mac with an AirPort card? It's possible I might still want an Express just for its music streaming or USB printer sharing features.

Apple acknowledges this dilemma in a recently posted Knowledge Base document. Their solution: Set up the AirPort Express via the AirPort Admin Utility instead of the Express Assistant. This indeed could work (after all, all the Express Assistant does is modify the Admin Utility settings via a more user-friendly interface). However, I faced an obstacle that the Knowledge Base document did not directly acknowledge: When accessed from my Power Mac G4, the AirPort Express did not appear in the Select Base Station list of the AirPort Admin Utility. So I still could not configure it. I imagine it would have appeared if I disconnected my Base Station and made a wired Ethernet connection from the Express to my Power Mac. But I was hoping to avoid that (the Express was already set up in my living room). So I wound up configuring the Express from my PowerBook. The good news is that, after initially setting up the Express, the unit did appear in the Admin Utility list on my Power Mac.

Macworld Expo: past and future

The conventional wisdom for why this year's Boston Macworld Expo was so much smaller than in previous years (as I covered in recent MacFixIt article) is that it was a result of Apple's refusal to attend the event. [Actually, Apple was apparently so miffed about the decision to move the Expo back to Boston that it has just about refused to publicly admit that the Boston Expo even took place.] I am sure this had a significant effect. But the Expo was likely to show signs of a decline no matter what Apple decided. Heck, Comdex, once the largest computer show of any kind, went belly-up last year. The Boston Expo is doing pretty well by that comparison.

So what's behind this decline in computer Expos? Two things: less money and more Internet.

In the late eighties and nineties, before the dot-com bubble burst, every company with more than two employees was sure to have a booth at Macworld Expo. There were so many booths that it literally took me two to three days just to make sure I at least passed by every booth of potential interest.

Many companies could and did spend almost obscene amounts of money at an Expo. Big and elaborate booths were just the start of the money flow. Next came the freebies. I used to bring an empty suitcase on my Expo trips just to accommodate all the free things that I knew I would be coming home with. (Trivia question: Do you remember the Wingz bags?)

Then there were the after-dark parties. Huge parties. With bands. And with tables full of food. And T-shirt give-aways. Several different ones a night. All free. Often in places like the Boston Aquarium and the Boston Science Center, completely closing these places to the public for the evening.

Most of these parties were open only to industry people. Many of them were supposedly closed even to the press, although we usually managed to wrangle an invitation. Actually, the Hess Party List (which Ilene Hoffman still maintains) was originally a list emailed to selected members of the press, so we could find out which invitation-only parties we had not been invited to. Such knowledge was the first step to cajoling a PR person into giving you an invitation. There were even a few parties especially for the press. My favorites were the ones hosted by Claris: small but always in an elegant restaurant with top quality food.

Even during the day, companies found innovative ways to spend money. Did you know that Power Computing once offered free bungie jumps at a Boston Macworld Expo? Or that MacUser magazine provided elephant rides?

These days, the leaves have mostly already fallen off the corporate money tree and companies increasingly do not see spending cash on an Expo as a good investment. Which gets to the second factor in the decline of the Expo: the Internet (or, more specifically, the World Wide Web). Back when the printed copy of MacWEEK was the most timely source of information you could get about the Mac, the Expo was where you went to announce new products, to get media attention, and in general to be "seen." Now, you can get "seen" by more people by announcing your product on your Web site, for far less cost.

Yup. The Expos of old were big, brash, extravagant, and lots of fun. But their time is over. It was fun while it lasted. But we are not going to return to those days, whether or not Apple attends the Expo. In fact, I have it from two sources that the January Macworld Expo in San Francisco, even with Apple on board, has shrunk down to the point that it will be held entirely in the South Hall of Moscone. This is the first time the Expo will be just in one hall since...well, since I can remember.

But rather than bemoan the decline of the Expo, let's be grateful it continues to exist at all. Big or small, it's still one of the very few occasions where the national Mac community can gather and interact "face-to-face." For that alone, I will be looking forward to January.

This is the latest in a series of monthly mac.column.ted articles by Ted Landau. To see a list of previous columns, click here. To send comments regarding this column directly to Ted, click here. To get Ted's latest book, Mac OS X Help Line, click here.

Resources
  • fourth generation iPod
  • admits
  • reported
  • one coming from Microsoft
  • released
  • shot back
  • Knowledge Base document
  • recent MacFixIt article
  • Hess Party List
  • click here
  • click here
  • click here
  • More from Mac Musings
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