Apple unwraps iPod digital music player

Apple Computer Inc. leapt into the consumer digital device market Tuesday with the release of the iPod, a US$399 digital music player that can store up to 1,000 songs on a miniature 5G-byte hard drive.

Silver grey in color and about the size of a deck of playing cards, the iPod looks not unlike some other MP3 music players, but boasts a handful of features intended to distinguish it from the pack. Those include the hard drive, which is just 1.8 inches across and stores CD-quality music at the 160K-bps (bits per second) rate, Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive officer, said at a launch event at the company's headquarters here.

It also uses Apple's high-speed FireWire connection technology, which loads music 30 times faster than other MP3 players on the market, Jobs said. The FireWire cable can also carry electrical current so when users plug the iPod into their computer, the battery in the device automatically recharges over the same cable.

The battery in the iPod is a rechargeable lithium polymer battery that can play 10 hours of continuous music, Jobs said.

The device is also built to work closely with Apple's iTunes digital jukebox software, version 2.0 of which was also announced Tuesday.

"This has never been done before," Jobs said, speaking of the tight integration between iPod and Apple's iTunes software. "I don't think there is another company that could do this."

The device fits with Apple's strategy to push its Mac OS X operating system as the hub for what Jobs called "the digital lifestyle." That idea, backed by other big PC makers, puts the personal computer at the center of a network of digital devices, including handheld computers, music players, and video and still digital cameras, where it acts as a central component for downloading, storing, editing and playing back files.

Apple's products for that vision so far include software like its iTunes, iDVD and iMovie products, and its desktop and laptop computers.

The iPod will be available in stores on Nov. 10 and is compatible with Mac OS 9 and OS X. The device will be available internationally at the same time, but the device's LCD (liquid crystal display) supports the English, French, German and Japanese languages, said Phil Schiller, vice president of worldwide product marketing at Apple.

In the longer term, Apple expects to offer a version of iPod for Windows users, but right now the company is focused on its Macintosh customers, Schiller said.

Two analysts praised the device, saying it could tempt users to upgrade to the latest version of Apple's new OS X operating system.

"They won't be able to build enough of these things," said Rob Enderle, research fellow of Giga Information Group Inc. Apple will probably struggle to manufacture enough of the devices to meet demand this holiday season, he said.

The $399 price tag is impressive, he said. Especially considering that miniature hard drives, like the one included with the iPod, are selling for as much as $400.

"The 5G-byte hard drive is extraordinary," agreed Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., adding that ease of use will also make the iPod a big seller.

At a time when PC sales are on the decline, Apple isn't the first company to branch out and add digital devices to its playlist. Compaq Computer Corp. in June launched the iPaq Music Center, which includes a modem and a hard drive and sits alongside components like the receiver and CD player in a stereo stack system. Hewlett-Packard Co. followed by announcing its Digital Entertainment Center, a similar product that adds a recordable CD drive for recording custom CDs.

Other vendors including SonicBlue Inc. and Voyetra Turtle Beach Inc. have also released digital music players for the home, but both have no hard drive and connect to a home PC network to play songs.

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James Niccolai

Computerworld

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