All signs point to a new crop of iPods in September, and while I'm as interested in the rumors and blurry "leaked" photos as the next fanboy, I'm also preparing myself for disappointment. Deep down, I know there are iPod features that will never see the light of day. Sure, Apple always trots out a few iPod-related surprises like iTunes movie rentals and Cover Flow, but I've all but given up on the following innovations.
1. Subscription music
If the rumors are right, I'll be chewing my toes on this one, but I just don't see any motivation for Apple to take up a subscription music model. Could they make it work? Absolutely. Apple's closed iTunes/iPod universe is the perfect playground for DRM-encrypted subscription music that needs to be escorted and licensed between computers and devices. After using the Zune and its proprietary Zune Pass music subscription service for about a year, I have a pretty good idea how a similarly seamless iTunes subscription music model would operate. It would be awesome, and you may never want to "buy" music again--and that's the problem.
If you think Apple's iPod business is profitable, you should check out the money they make selling you music at 99 cents a track. iTunes is the most recognized name in online music retail and they make a killing at it. The idea that Apple has any motivation to tweak its golden formula for success is preposterous. In fact, an iTunes subscription music model could be a disaster for Apple.
Last week, I heard Tag Strategic's Ted Cohen lecture Rhapsody's David Krinsky on the Achilles heel of the subscription music model and I've never been so convinced that a successful music retailer like Apple wouldn't touch subscription music with a ten foot pole. The problem: It's not in the best interest for subscription music companies to have their users downloading too much music.
Politely discouraging users from gorging on unlimited music will be tough for iTunes, considering the retail efficiency they've honed after years selling songs piecemeal. Without a total overhaul of the iTunes store or a revolutionary approach to subscription music, offering consumers an all-you-can-eat music plan at a flat-rate would cause Apple to bleed money into the pockets of record labels.
It would also be a PR disaster for a music retailer just coming out from the shadow of Fair Play DRM to dive back into a rights-managed music scheme. Sure, Apple would create lifetime customers who are locked into monthly/yearly subscription plans for fear of bricking their music collection, but the risk of burning consumers again with DRM just isn't worth it.
2. Camera/GPS (aka phone-less iPhone)
With the 8GB iPhone 3G's $199 up-front price, there's a fine line Apple has to tread not to cannibalize sales of their iPod Touch (and vice-versa). Make the iPod Touch too good, and people might settle for a cheap phone and an awesome media player; make the iPod Touch too restricted (or too pricey) and people feel like idiots for buying it over the iPhone.
For someone like me who's around Wi-Fi most of my day, a less expensive iPod Touch with a camera, GPS, and maybe even a speaker, would be an easy win over the iPhone--which is exactly while we'll never see it. The iPhone 3G is the star of the show these days, and Apple won't let it be upstaged by the iPod.
3. Bluetooth (A2DP)
With more and more Bluetooth-enabled speakers, car stereos, and headphones hitting the market, Apple is ripe to finally roll wireless audio capabilities into their iPods, right? Not likely. Bluetooth is everywhere, but it's a big drain on battery life and it still confuses people. If Best Buy is making money by having a Bluetooth-pairing kiosk at its stores, than the technology just isn't ready for prime time on the user-friendly iPod. I'm sure Apple has considered adding Bluetooth to the iPod, but honestly, this is one of those features that's much better for the accessory market to figure out (although we haven't seen a great one yet).
4. FM radio
I think most of the people holding their breath for this one have finally collapsed. At this point, Apple has to keep radios out of their iPods simply on principle. They've dismissed the idea of adding an FM radio to the iPod for years, and with the recent accolades over the addition of Internet radio to the iPhone and iPod Touch, Apple can't be feeling much regret over the FM snub. Anyhow, if having a built-in FM radio is such a hot feature, Apple's gotta wonder why radio-wielding competitors haven't made much traction.
5. Song sharing
The wireless device-to-device song-sharing feature on the Microsoft Zune is a brilliant feature stuck on the wrong player. For a feature like this to be any fun, you need to have a critical mass of active users to share with in your daily life. The iPod and its 70 percent domestic market share is really the only MP3 player that can pull off casual device-to-device song sharing--but it never will.
Why? Because pulling off a song-sharing feature requires a shedload of the DRM-encryption Apple is trying so hard to distance itself from; iPod Touch Apps like Last.fm already get the job done without waiting around for files to transfer; and adding Wi-Fi to the Apple Nano or Classic lineup would zap precious battery life.
The sure bets
So what's left for Apple to bring to the table? Well, I think the rumors of a full-point upgrade for iTunes rings true. That behemoth is long-overdue for an upgrade. iTunes has been stuck in Version 7 since 2006! With any luck, Apple will streamline iTunes, boost its performance, and somehow integrate it with their MobileMe service (c'mon remote MP3 locker!).
I also agree with the rumors that Apple will move away from the squat design for the iPod Nano, and go with a sideways screen orientation similar to the Flash Zune. The reason behind this isn't to stop the chubby jokes, but to allow for a wider screen capable of showcasing the iTunes store's increasing amount of widescreen format video content.
Beyond that, the iPod Classic will stay "classic" and probably receive a price drop and the iPod Touch will receive an overdue price slash (I'm thinking 8GB for $199), maybe a slightly bigger screen to differentiate it from the iPhone, and a few bundled Apps and games (Spore, maybe?).
If you've got other predictions, be sure to share them in the comments section.