Tech Industry

Week in review: Apple shuffles feathers

Between the launch of its tiny buttonless iPod Shuffle and the announcement of an iPhone 3.0 event next week, Apple's got people talking. Also: Microsoft looks at its future on the desktop and in the cloud; and the Palm Pre gets pricing--sort of.

Apple got people talking this week on topics ranging from the merits (and demerits) of the tiny new buttonless iPod Shuffle to predictions about what it has in store for an upcoming iPhone 3.0 event.

Technology watchers--particularly those focused on trends in gadgetry--put on a collective smile Tuesday morning when Apple announced its latest version of the iPod Shuffle.

The grin wasn't necessarily out of excitement for the new Shuffle, which is smaller than a AA battery and also recites song titles, artists, and playlist names to help with navigation despite the lack of any screen on the device. It was more likely the recollection of that far-fetched but increasingly poignant spoof iPod Flea video that stormed the blogosphere several years ago. In the video by Photoshop maven Scott Kelby, the iPod Flea--bearing a striking resemblance to a Tic Tac mint--pokes fun at Apple's shrinking music players and the related accessory industry. That video came before a similar "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Steve Jobs presenting the iPod "pequeno" followed by the invisible "invisa."

And here we are: the new iPod isn't quite mint-sized, but it does look much like a stick of minty gum. It immediately took some heat for being too small, shunning compatibility with third-party headphones without a special adapter, and for the fact that it doesn't have a screen or even any buttons. Some have come to the new Shuffle's defense, but one CNET contributor even went as far as calling it a disaster. Although that same writer, David Carnoy, later came around and realized that the real story may be that the Shuffle's "VoiceOver" feature is a precursor to Apple launching an entire new voice interface for its whole line of mobile products.

Despite taking some flak, the Shuffle's new interface did generate a lot of interest. Upon getting their hands on it, blog iFixIt immediately tore it apart to see what was inside. And CNET's Donald Bell gave it a generally favorable review.

But the Shuffle isn't the only thing Apple had up its sleeve this week. It also got people buzzing about what's next when it announced on Wednesday a March 17 invitation-only event to discuss a new iPhone SDK and an updated version of the iPhone software.

CNET News' Tom Krazit says this could explain why the company has been slow to offer renewals for current SDK licenses, as it might be requiring developers to sign a whole new agreement. While the software will be the main attraction, developers will be closely watching for details about how the new SDK will affect their businesses.

On the software front, judging by the comments about the event, iPhone users are looking for Apple to finally bring cut-and-paste capability to the device. Of all the advancements Apple has planned for the iPhone 3.0 software, that's probably the one users are hoping for the most. Click here for more of Krazit's take on what to expect from iPhone 3.0.

And in other product news, Krazit sorts through some of the Apple tablet and Netbook rumors and ponders the possibility the company is looking at a future e-book store or reader.

Also from Apple this week came the release of iTunes 8.1, which adds support for the newly released iPod Shuffles, along with some security fixes, promised new Genius features, and support for CD imports to iTunes Plus. Security-wise, the update includes a fix for a vulnerability that could lead to theft of usernames and passwords if a podcast containing malware were subscribed to.

Microsoft did a lot of looking ahead this week. Microsoft won't say how many people are running its cloud operating system, Windows Azure, but the numbers are growing. Senior Director Steven Martin said they are "approving more and more developers every day." And while much of the mainstream tech world is still getting its head around what exactly Azure will be, some software companies are already digging in and writing Azure code. Since it was announced in October, Microsoft hasn't said much about Azure. But expect more details at next week's Mix conference in Las Vegas.

On the desktop side, Redmond says it's done some work to make sure Windows 7 can run on Netbooks, the fashionable PCs du jour. It will offer a low-cost version of Windows 7 that can be run on less expensive Netbooks; that would obviously mean less profits. However, Microsoft thinks the line between traditional laptops and Netbooks will soon blur, and people will demand more performance in a smaller container, meaning there is still a future for a more full-blown version of Windows 7 in that field.

With Windows 7, it's also making an effort to "rescue" some apps that wouldn't run on Windows Vista, by making sure they will run on Windows 7. A few of the now-Windows-friendly programs include the Spanish-language IKEA Home Kitchen Planner, a German version of QuickTime, and the Arabic program Khalifa Cartoon Characters Creator.

Microsoft divulged a few new details--primarily of interest to developers--about its upcoming Windows Marketplace. The online store will sell apps that run on Windows Mobile devices and is expected to launch later this year.

The software maker will charge developers $99 a year to register, plus $99 for each application they submit to get a program into the app store. Developers who choose to charge for their programs will keep 70 percent of the proceeds, the same percentage Apple pays its App Store developers and slightly less than Research In Motion has said it will give for its forthcoming store.

Microsoft also added to its mouse and keyboard lines with its unusually shaped Arc Mouse--and there's nary a beige one in the bunch. It also stepped into a new realm in hardware with its Notebook Cooling Base, an inch-thick stand with a built-in fan that keeps the temperature of a laptop down.

Also of note
The South by Southwest Interactive Festival, which kicked off Friday in Austin, Texas, has seen explosive growth...Palm still hasn't said how much the upcoming Pre will cost, but we now know that the phone's service will be priced in line with Sprint's other smartphone services...AOL named a former Google exec as its new CEO...IBM took the wraps off a bevy of technologies with a distinctively social-network flavor...Obama's CIO has temporarily stepped down after FBI raids ex-employer...Facebook rolled out a new Twitter-like home page...Steve Wozniak got called a "Teletubby going mad" on "Dancing with the Stars" and then suffered a foot fracture...Google launched Google Voice, a sort of middleman for phone calls that, among other things, automatically transcribed voice mails.