Regarding OS X-Based iPods

Two things have stuck with me from Steve Jobs’s big day-before-iPhone-launch address to all Apple employees. The first is that he admitted that Apple is working on OS X-based iPods.

It’s a little unusual for Jobs to reveal any information at all about future products, but in this case, it’s hard to see how it could be considered a secret. The basic original iPod form factor and software UI is great — it will deservedly be remembered as one of the best-designed consumer electronic products in history. But if you’ve used, or even seen, the iPod app on an iPhone, you know that it’s old news. It’s impossible to get excited about any “new” iPod that is less than the iPhone iPod app. As for “rumors” that new iPods are scheduled to debut this fall, that’s sort of like predicting that Christmas is coming in December. In fact, it’s the same prediction — Apple has been rolling out new iPods a few months before Christmas every year, for the obvious reason that they sell tens of millions of them as Christmas gifts.

Last year’s new iPods were rather pedestrian upgrades. Especially the hard-drives based models, which really only offered a handful of new software features compared to the original fifth-generation models that debuted in 2005.

The argument against OS X-based iPods debuting this fall is that Apple wouldn’t want to offer something that distracts from the iPhone yet. But what’s the alternative? To let the iPod — a brand worth billions of dollars — languish?

This brings me to the second notable remark from Jobs’s company-wide address. Taking questions from the audience, Jobs was asked if he was concerned that the iPhone would cannibalize sales of iPods. Jobs replied that if anyone was going to cannibalize iPod sales, it better be Apple itself.

This is the defining characteristic of Apple as a company, today: They replace their hit products while they’re still on top. Rather than building a lead over their competition and sitting on it, they just keep building. The best example of this was the introduction of the original iPod Nano. At the time, the best-selling iPods were the Minis. The iPod Mini was a smash hit product.

And when Apple debuted the Nano, they killed it.

Most companies wouldn’t even consider killing a product like the iPod Mini while it was still a best-seller; instead, they milk hit products for all they’re worth and ride them out for years. (Exhibit A: Motorola’s Razr.) One thing Apple could have done, but didn’t, was continue to sell iPod Minis alongside the Nanos. Apple treats its product line-up like a product itself — it is designed to be obvious and easy to understand.

Choosing which iPod to buy is easy: Do you want to carry a huge library and/or play video? Get a regular iPod. Do you just want something small to play music? Buy an iPod Nano. Want something tiny and inexpensive? Get the Shuffle. No matter how risky it might have been to kill the iPod Mini while it was still the best-selling iPod, there just wasn’t room for it in the line-up alongside the Nano.

(Compare and contrast to Verizon Wireless, whose chief marketing officer brags that they offer 18 different music-playing phones.)

The reason some people are skeptical about Apple introducing OS X-based iPods this year is that the question about cannibalizing sales works both ways: an iPhone-ish OS X-based iPod would surely have some detrimental effect on iPhone sales. AT&T might care about that, but why would Apple?

The simple truth is that the iPhone user experience doesn’t just blow away the experience of other companies’ cell phones — it blows away the experience of Apple’s own iPods. The biggest question, as I see it, is whether Apple plans to introduce iPods that are more or less just the iPod app from the iPhone (i.e. just music and video players), or iPods that are everything but phones, with Wi-Fi networking for email, web, and more.