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Apple iTV: coming in early February with a built-in hard drive?

As the countdown to MacWorld continues, rumors about the Apple iTV abound.

Apple iTV
Apple iTV: coming soon

By this time next week, Steve Jobs' Macworld Expo keynote address will be history. While guesses about what will be announced run the gamut from the mundane (OS X upgrades) to the lustful (iPod phone and/or wide-screen video iPod), it's a near certainty that we'll get more details on Apple's so-called iTV product. The iTV--its final name is still pending--is Apple's take on the digital media receiver. It's a small box designed to stream your computer-based iTunes media (movies, TV shows, music, podcasts) to your big-screen TV and home theater system--basically, a networked "home iPod." The little that's known about the iTV is what Jobs revealed back in September 2006: It's got built-in wireless networking, HDMI output, and--perhaps most importantly--it's priced at just $300.

But when will you be able to buy an iTV? And what features of the device does Apple have yet to reveal? Nobody knows for sure, but rumor site Appleinsider.com (as spotted on Digg) has some relevant dirt, thanks to "people familiar with the matter" (otherwise known as anonymous sources). The iTV will ship in just a few weeks ("late January or early February"). Moreover, it's said to have a "small hard drive" which would enable some local content storage, according to information previously leaked by Disney CEO Robert Iger (a friend and colleague of Jobs--the Apple CEO, you'll remember, also sits on Disney's board of directors as a result of the entertainment company's 2006 buyout of his other company, animation stalwart Pixar).

What do these latest rumors mean? Not too much, in the grand scheme of things. While Apple generally has its new products available within days of their announcements--if not instantaneously--anytime between now and the end of March would still fall within the previously announced first-quarter time frame. As for the inclusion of a small hard drive: maybe, maybe not. Yes, hard drives are dirt cheap these days, and Apple gets some of the best discounts in the business. But Iger's "hard drive" phrasing may be a layman's description of a decent flash memory capacity (say, 2GB to 4GB) that could be used to cache media files--especially video--as they zip across a home network, to deliver smoother performance. A few gigs also could be helpful when streaming Web radio and increasingly large digital photos.

Whatever the actual release date or storage capacity, however, there's no doubt that the iTV is going to shake up the market for digitally-delivered media. By this time next week, we'll have a much better idea of exactly how much. In the meantime, look for the rumors to reach a fever pitch.

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