Almost three years ago, I queued up with about a hundred other tech journalists at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center while waiting to hear Steve Jobs announce...something. Each of us had received an invitation on heavy card stock with elegant text explaining that Apple was about to unleash a "breakthrough digital device" and teasing that "Hint: It's not a Mac."
In my seven years of covering technology, I can't remember a press event with more buzz in the air. As we waited for the doors to open, many of us passed the time by hazarding guesses as to what Jobs would be announcing. Sadly, my prediction turned out to be way off. I was fairly certain that we were going to see some sort of digital audio receiver (DAR) for playing a computer's music on a stereo in the next room. I figured that since Apple was so far ahead in terms of integrating 802.11b wireless networking (which it calls the AirPort) into its computers, the next logical step would be to send that music to stereos.
I was wrong. As we now know, Jobs announced the original 5GB iPod that day. The announcement went over incredibly well, and all sorts of oohs and aahs emanated from a normally skeptical tech press corp--unless Apple had planted a few employees in the crowd to provide that sort of wholehearted approbation. Regardless, our response ended up being prophetic; the iPod quickly became the number one MP3 player in the world--and has yet to relinquish that title.
Just about three years later, I have another prediction about Apple, and this time I'm fairly confident that I'm right. The company recently put a job posting on its Web site that mentioned it was looking for someone with Wi-Fi development experience for its iPod/iTunes division. Apple could be looking to integrate Wi-Fi into the iPod. After all, a company called SoniqCast has already released the Element Aireo, a device that can download music from across the house. A future firmware update will even allow wireless, computer-free file sharing. If the RIAA thinks dealing with online piracy is a headache, Wi-Fi could cause heads to explode.
Introducing the iPod Home
Sure, a Wi-Fi iPod would be cool, and power users would probably figure out great applications for it, such as sharing music on the highway. However, I don't think that's what Apple's going to do. This time, I'm putting my $5 on a version of the iPod designed for home use; let's call it the iPod Home, for argument's sake. The iPod Home will be a small, white box that sits in your stereo, grabbing songs wirelessly and on the fly from any computer in your house with iTunes and Wi-Fi capabilities (if your computer doesn't have Wi-Fi, you can install it pretty easily with a card). The function of streaming music from computer to stereo is a simple one. But controlling the music remotely is much more complicated since you need to be able to navigate your library and access playlists.
The iPod Home will be a small, white box that sits in your stereo, grabbing songs wirelessly and on the fly from any computer in your house with iTunes and Wi-Fi capabilities.
Some digital audio receivers
solve this problem by letting you navigate music through your TV, while others have a small screen
. Yet a third variety (my favorite) gives you a remote control with a screen
so that you can navigate right from your couch. Apple already offers one solution, called AirPort Express
, that lets you stream music to your stereo. However, it's not ideal for some applications because it requires you to monitor the iTunes controls from your computer. What if you're reading a book on the couch?
The answer is right in front of us
I think I know which solution Apple will choose for controlling the iPod Home--and even how it will look and feel. I predict the company will go with a remote control with a screen on it. And what could be better than an iPod for navigating a music library? The scrollwheel and the onscreen menu system would allow you to navigate networked music just as adeptly as you would with the music it stores, although there would likely be a slightly longer delay between picking a song and hearing it. The iPod Home remote would be like a hollowed-out iPod with a larger internal battery (no hard drive) and an IR transmitter for talking to the iPod Home unit. For current iPod users, Apple could offer a clip-on accessory that would let you use your iPod to control iPod Home. Considering Apple's current domination of the digital music market, its early support of Wi-Fi technology, and the iPod's legendary ease of use, the iPod Home feels less like a prediction and more like an inevitability.
The marketplace for DARs has yet to take off, and even when it does, it'll be a huge challenge to get computers, wireless cards, music software, digital rights management, and remote controls to work together--especially since each piece of the puzzle could come from a different company. That's why Apple is perfectly positioned. It could control every element, ensuring that the system works and continues to work even if users decide to upgrade a component (such as, say, iTunes 5.0).
The $5 question
If I'm right about this, iPod Home will come out within the next year--maybe just in time for the holidays. If not, I owe my collective readership five bucks, which I will donate in your names to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
What do you think the next iPod will be? TalkBack to me below!