You'd better believe it. When Apple announced that it was about to unveil something big, its stock price zoomed to a record high. The Gizmodo Web site posted an exhibit of no fewer than 24 different faked "iPod phone" photos that have circulated online. Gadget freaks worldwide went foamy at the mouth.
Now, plenty of current cell phones can already play music--but not with Apple's sense of style and polish. They can't play songs from Apple's iTunes Music Store, either, which is where 10 million people--more than 80 percent of the world's online song buyers--get them.
So questions aboutflew thick and fast in nerd circles. Will it look cool, like an iPod? Will it have the iPod's famous click wheel on the front? Will the phone have a hard drive that can hold thousands of songs? Will you be able to download songs straight from the Internet? Will it have a FireWire or USB 2.0 connector for superfast music transfer? Will you be able to use your songs as ring tones, so that the phone bursts out in "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" when your husband calls?
All became clear on a San Francisco stage Wednesday morning when Steve Jobs, Apple's chief,. One was a new iPod model-- --that's so thin, it looks like a traditional white (or black) iPod that's been squished by a steamroller. Its two models ($199 and $249) hold 500 and 1,000 songs in memory; there's no hard drive, which helps the Nano crank out 14 hours of music on a charge.
The other new product was, yes, a new combination cell phone and music player, a collaboration among Apple, Cingular and Motorola, called the Rokr E1, which will cost $250 with a new Cingular contract. (Ever since its, Motorola's been on a roll with its omitted-letter naming scheme.)
All right, now, about those questions: The answer to all of them is no.
No, the Rokr doesn't look like an iPod. It's a lot better looking in person than in photos, and the design certainly trumps most slab-style phones (that is, nonflip phones); the subtly rounded number keys are a pleasure to use. But it's two-toned silver, not snow white.
No, the Rokr doesn't have a click wheel; there wouldn't have been room on this tiny device, 4.3 by 1.8 by 0.8 inches. Instead, it has a five-way nubbin, much like the one on some Palm organizers. Nudging it in any direction simulates the functions of the four iPod click-wheel buttons. What you lose, of course, is the click wheel's ability to cruise through long lists quickly.
No, the phone doesn't contain a hard drive. It comes with a tiny, 512MB TransFlash memory card. Incredibly, though, you can only store 100 songs on the phone, tops, no matter how much room is left on the card. (If you really become a Rokr horse, though, you could theoretically buy several cards, each filled with a different 100 songs.)
The companies aren't especially forthcoming on the reason for the 100-song limitation, but it's not hard to imagine Apple worrying about the Rokr's impact on the sales of real iPods. (Look on the bright side: If your list is only 100 songs long, you won't miss having a fast-scrolling click wheel.)
Moving on: No, you can't download songs directly onto the phone. You must load music onto the phone from your copy of iTunes 5.0, a sleek new version of Apple's free jukebox software for Mac and Windows. (You can either drag songs manually onto the phone's icon, build a playlist for your phone or let the AutoFill feature surprise you with a random set of songs with each connection. In that regard, the phone works a lot like Apple's iPod Shuffle.)
No, you can't use songs as ring tones, at least not the songs you've bought from Apple's music store. (You can use ordinary MP3 files as ring tones, but loading them onto the phone isn't trivial.) This, too, is almost certainly a limitation driven by corporate interests. Cell phone carriers charge $1.50 to $3 apiece for ring tones; Cingular certainly wouldn't want to hand that lucrative business over to Apple's music store.
No, the phone doesn't have a FireWire or USB 2.0 connector. It connects to your Mac or PC with a USB 1.1 cable. Count on waiting 30 seconds for each song to transfer (compared with about 10 seconds for each album on a regular iPod).
What's to like?
That's an awful lot of "No's." So what, exactly, are the positive points of the Rokr phone?
First, the whole music-playing portion has been beautifully done; it's a joy to use. When you're ready for some tunes, you press a dedicated musical-note button--and boom, you're looking at the familiar iPod main menu (organized by Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs and so on). You navigate and operate it exactly as on a real iPod. The album cover of the current song even appears on the 176-by-200-pixel color screen.
The earbuds are still white, so you still get social status points by wearing them in public. But partway down the cord, a microphone dangles, so you can make calls and listen to music without having to change headgear. In fact, the phone cleverly pauses music playback when a call comes in.
The music sounds fantastic, easily a match for the surrounding sound of city subways; the little plastic phone packs a lot more power than you might expect. Battery life is excellent: One charge gives you 6 to 9 hours of talk time, 160 to 230 hours of standby time or 15 hours of music playback with the earbuds on.
The phone is loaded with other useful features. It takes above-average cell phone photos or even short video clips. You can voice-dial up to 100 numbers (that is, say "call Mom" to have it call Mom). The phone's Bluetooth transmitter lets you use wireless headsets, although you can't transfer music wirelessly. The built-in stereo speakers handle speakerphone calls, and also sound surprisingly good playing music when you don't feel like using the earbuds.
In fact, the entire phone shudders in time to the music, as though driven by a gnat-size subwoofer. (Motorola explains that in Asia, it's popular to carry your cell phone on a neck lanyard--yes, the Rokr has lanyard loops--and that it's fun to feel the phone thudding against your collarbone as you jog or hang out.)
And speaking of good, goofy gimmicks aimed straight at the hearts of the under-25 set: You can set up the phone's edges to pulse with colored, neon-style lights. It's not just a random pattern; they actually blink in response to (and in sync with) sound, like the dorm room stereo's bass.
On the downside, the Rokr's phone functions use the same software design as Motorola's Razr phone, which is, ahem, not nearly as universally adored as the Razr's physical design.
Online, the spitting on the new iTunes phone has already begun. "It's an iPod Shuffle with a phone attached," grouses one bulletin-board participant.
And it's certainly true that financial interests of the three collaborators--Apple, Motorola and Cingular--have hog-tied the Rokr in a lot of unnecessary ways. The phone would be so much better if it held more music, let you buy songs directly online and let you use songs as ring tones.
If you're looking for an iPod phone, in other words, the Rokr isn't it; it stands no chance of living up to the hyperventilating hype of the last few weeks. But as an iTunes phone--the only one on earth that lets you carry subsets of your Apple store-bought music on errands and other short missions--the Rokr is great-sounding, reasonably priced and a lot of fun.