Will 'the beat go on' with a new iPod?

Apple is expected to introduce new iPods next week--that would make three Septembers in a row--as it tries to corner the video-player market.

After more than two years of minor tweaks to its most popular product, it looks like Apple is ready for new iPods.

Several weeks of rumors about a pending iPod announcement were apparently confirmed late Tuesday afternoon, when Apple sent out an invitation to the media for an event on Wednesday in San Francisco. True to form, the company didn't explicitly say what was expected, but the white silhouette of a dancing iPod user didn't leave much to the imagination.

As the invite says, "the beat goes on" for Apple's iPod division. Almost six years after the debut of the iPod, Apple dominates the handheld music player market with 72.4 percent of the market in the first half of this year, according to research by The NPD Group. Even competitors such as SanDisk CEO Eli Harari have tipped their cap at Apple's run in the music player market, which shows no signs of slowing even though the company has made few changes to its iPod designs in two years.

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"They're very good," Harari said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "You have to give credit where credit is due."

SanDisk recently unveiled the Sansa Clip in hopes of competing with the iPod Shuffle, but the company is currently focused more on the developing flash memory market for mobile phones than trying to develop an iPod killer.

Two years ago in September, CEO Steve Jobs upstaged the late arrival of Motorola's iTunes Rokr music phone with the introduction of the slim iPod Nano. Last year around this time, the company tweaked the Nano and the fifth-generation iPod with brighter screens and more capacity, but left the basic design of those two models alone while introducing a much smaller iPod Shuffle.

That clearly didn't hurt sales, as Apple moved 21 million iPods during its first quarter, which overlaps with the holiday shopping season. Now, Apple followers expect the company to make more radical changes that most likely involve improving the viewing experience on an iPod and introducing that capability to the iPod Nano.

Playing music on your iPod is old hat these days. After years of disdaining portable video players, Jobs gave in and a month after launching the iPod Nano introduced a video-player iPod along with making television shows available through the iTunes store. Last year, Apple expanded its offerings to include movies, but video downloads are still finding their place.

NPD surveyed 11,000 U.S. consumers older than age 13 earlier this year, and found that only 6.6 percent of respondents purchased a television show or movie online during the past six months. It's not clear how many folks are watching videos on their iPods as opposed to on their computers or TVs via Apple TV, but mobile video is still very much a niche experience at this point.

That's what Apple could be hoping to change on Wednesday. The most persistent rumors over the past couple of months have involved a redesign of both the current iPod video player as well as the smaller iPod Nano to provide a better viewing experience.

Only the fifth-generation iPod supports video playback at the moment, but it uses a 2.5-inch screen that after the launch of the iPhone looks impossibly small. Several Apple-oriented sites, as well as a few financial analysts, have gone on record predicting Apple will release an iPod with the same 3.5-inch widescreen display found on the iPhone but without the phone hardware.

iPod through the years

Many also expect Apple to have a new version of the iPod Nano that supports video playback. It's not clear at all how this might be accomplished while preserving the diminutive size of the iPod Nano.

The iPod Nano currently comes with a 1.5-inch screen. If Apple made a Nano with a larger screen, that would force some design tradeoffs. One site, 9to5mac.com, briefly published photos of a video-player iPod Nano that was shorter and wider than the current version in order to accommodate the larger screen. The site said Apple's legal department requested the removal of the images, which doesn't necessarily mean that design is legitimate but certainly doesn't rule it out, either.

Given that the slim profile of the iPod Nano is one of its biggest attributes, it might seem odd that Apple would mess with the design. But Apple was quite willing to shelve its most popular iPod in 2005--the iPod Mini--to make way for the iPod Nano, and there's no reason to think the company has lost confidence in its ability to pull off a similar transition.

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