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Product Lineup

Product Lineup

iPod LineupI’ve been thinking more about Apple’s new iPods and my reaction to them. I think the basic force behind my disappointed reaction was that, for the first time ever, it wasn’t entirely clear to me which iPod I would buy if I could. In fact, I think it is noteworthy that prominently displayed on Apple’s webiste is a feature entitled “Which iPod are you?”. Apple tends to strive for simple product lineups these days, balancing the need to make as much cool stuff available as possible with the fear of diluting their product image with a flood of sub-par options. Furthermore there is some tendency, I think, to feel that if a customer has to think too hard about which option is the best for them, they might think themselves right out of the purchase altogether, feeling that none of the options is optimal. Apple would much rather have you salivating over the one perfect product.

Apple is in a funny product transition with its iPods, based in part on the iPhone and in part on the increasing capacity of flash based players, and that has, unfortunately, left them caught making their customers choose between sub-par options whose flaws wouldn’t even be evident if the other product wasn’t available for comparison.

Originally Apple’s goal with the iPod was simple: put as many songs as possible in your pocket. With the introduction of the mini and then the nano, it became obvious that there was an even bigger market that would accept fewer songs in an ultra small package, and so the status quo of the last couple years became established. The choice was between the premium iPod with all the features and all the storage, and the sleek iPod with fewer of those, but everything to be desired in terms of portability. It was always obvious to me where I fit in that world. I rarely if ever feel that the full sized iPod is too large to take somewhere (heck, I’m still using what now seems like a behemoth of a 2G iPod). So no need for me to make compromises, the perfect iPod for me is obviously the one that holds all my music and has all the features.

But the iPhone and iPod touch throw that into doubt. Now there are two products competing for the “premium” spot, and the iPod classic really isn’t competing very hard. The iPhone and it’s fraternal twin the iPod touch are clearly the “best iPods ever made”. But neither has storage enough for me. The question I brought up immediately was, why not make the iPod touch the sole premium device, eliminating the classic sopt in favor of a souped up, hard drive based iPod touch? I’ve seen some people speculate that this is technically impossible due to battery limitations or space requirements or some such, but I doubt it. Sure, it wouldn’t be quite so ultra thin, but it would still be small and it would be hands down the best iPod ever. Anyone bothered by the thickness would doubtlessly be nano buyers anyway.

So why didn’t Apple make that iPod? I think the fear in Apple’s collective mind is, would the owner of an iPhone who needs an iPod with 80GB of storage or more feel comfortable buying a physically almost identical device? Somehow it doesn’t seem unreasonable at all to buy an iPhone and either a nano (I need an unltra small device) or a classic (I need an ultra high capacity device), but I think most people would hesitate to buy an iPhone and an iPod touch (even if it were a high capacity device) simply based on looks and behavior. Even worse for Apple, perhaps, it might make people who are on the fence about the iPhone feel that the iPod touch is not only the clear winner, but the only iPod that meets their needs, making it difficult for them to justify the purchase of an iPhone.

I think that Apple’s long term plan is that flash memory prices will decrease, allowing a 32 or 64 GB iPod touch and a 16 or 32 GB iPhone. This will probably be enough memory for the vast majority of users and will allow the iPhone and iPod touch to sit comfortably in the premium seat. It’s possible that for most people the 8GB of the iPhone and 16GB of the iPod touch already do this, but I personally I think it falls just short. With a medium capacity iPhone available, it will simplify the product scheme again, this time with two “compromise” options: physically small and capacity big. Those who want it all will get either the iPhone or the iPod touch based on whether or not they really want the phone capabilities, and those with truly huge libraries will make the compromise and get an iPod classic (a purchase that will have little to do with whether or not they buy an iPhone which will fill a totally separate niche for them) just as those who want something truly tiny have been making the compromise to get a nano.

So what will I buy? Unfortunately I don’t see iPhones coming in the 32 or 64 GB that would allow them to fill my “primary iPod” slot, within a year—maybe two—so eventually I’m going to want a high capacity iPod in addition to the iPhone I hope to get within a year or so. Now that I’ve verified that the new iPods look much nicer in person than in the pictures, I think I see an 80GB iPod classic in my near future. In another five years or so, when I’m thinking about upgrading again, flash capacities will probably be sufficient that I can retire my 80GB iPod classic for an updated iPhone that does it all.

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