Has iPod's hit parade stalled?

Apple hasn't significantly updated music player this year; rivals have added capacity and more. Photos: Going up against iPod

After years of cranking out hit iPod models, has Apple Computer hit a wall?

The company hasn't had a significant update to its product line this year, with the only change being the addition of a smaller-capacity 1GB iPod Nano in February.

"It's possible that we're at a point where the path to taking the next step is less clear and less straightforward, even for a company with the technology expertise and creativity of Apple," said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian.

music players

Other reasons could explain the radio silence out of Cupertino, Calif., Kevorkian said, including the fact that Apple has decided to phase out the PortalPlayer processor from its next-generation Nano and reports that the company has faced design challenges with the successor to its video iPod.

Whatever the reasons, the competition is moving forward. Microsoft has said it will have its first Zune-branded device--a hard drive-based player with built-in Wi-Fi--in time for the holidays. SanDisk this week announced an 8GB version of its Sansa player, offering a device with more storage than the Nano or any of its major flash memory-based rivals. And the cell phone industry, which has struggled to find a music-playing hit, may have finally produced a bona fide contender with LG's Chocolate.

But few expect Apple is resting on its laurels.

"I'm convinced they aren't just sitting there," said Gartner analyst Michael McGuire. Apple declined to comment on where it is headed, as is its custom. Such silence, McGuire said, makes it hard to know where Apple is headed.

While it's hard to predict with certainty what will show up in Apple's next digital music players, any number of features could be added, analysts say. One possibility, Kevorkian said, is digital radio. So-called HD Radio offers digital content but, unlike satellite radio, is freely available without a subscription. Plus, one of the things that has prevented the technology from becoming widespread is the lack of support from hardware devices. "HD Radio is a technology that could make a lot of sense in the context of iPod," she said.

Apple has also given some indications that it may be trying to find new ways of melding the iPod with the cell phone.

During the company's most recent conference call, Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said that today's cell phones don't make the best music players. "But over time, that is likely to change," he said. "And we're not sitting around doing nothing."

'Imagination is the limit'
The cell phone market is important, analysts say, noting that some consumers may opt to carry only one device, while others will make use of their cell phone for listening to music, even while carrying an iPod or other player on other occasions.

"You have a class of device that has a very powerful media processor with a lot of memory, it's almost like having a PC in your hand," Francis Lee, president and CEO of touchpad maker , said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "What kinds of things can you do with those devices? Your imagination is the limit," he said.

Lee, whose company's technology has been used in the iPod's scroll wheel, declined to comment specifically on what might be next for the iPod, but he said that broadly speaking, music remains one of the most important applications for future handheld devices.

In any case, Kevorkian said that Apple may have missed an opportunity to follow up on its successes of last year, which included the Nano and video iPod. "Apple had so much momentum coming out of 2005," she said. "That was momentum they could have banked on by introducing new products in the first half of 2006." (It should be noted, of course, that Apple could conceivably introduce a new model before the holiday shopping season.)

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