For the third week in a row, Apple came out with a surprise announcement this morning. No it’s not a 10” netbook, think smaller. A lot smaller. Today’s news has to do with a revamped iPod Shuffle. When the Shuffle was introduced, it cracked the barrier for the $99 iPod and at the same time, re-defined the market for low end devices. The 2nd generation of Shuffle was even smaller and while still focused on the low end of the market, it also became a fashion accessory as well, designed to be clipped to clothes, something that had nothing to do with price. This dual world of the Shuffle is important to understand as the Shuffle has never just been about a “race to the bottom” to make the cheapest MP3 player for the moment. It’s always had a value and identity that brought its own value to the market.
Today’s 3rd generation Shuffle does that as well. It’s the smallest iPod Apple has ever made. If you can imagine, it’s about half as small as the prior generation. Yep, half as small. How did Apple manage that? Well, they’ve totally removed all the hardware controls off the device which is now totally controlled by the headphones, much as the iPhone and iPod Touch can be used in that manner. Apple’s also beefed up the capacity to 4gb so there’s now the capacity for 1,000 songs on your Shuffle. That presents a little problem. With no screen (much less no buttons) how does one navigate through 1,000 songs that is likely to be broken into different play lists? Here again, Apple has shown a novel approach and why this product isn’t just the cheapest in the line. Apple uses text to speech called Voice Over to allow users to hear what track and artist is being played and what the title of playlists are to navigate. It’s brilliant, works well and changes the way one interacts with their music player on the go. (I’d love to see this integrated into every other Apple music device). The magic is done through Eric, Apple’s best voice for Leopard OS. Non leopard users and Windows users can install a speech pack for a similar (if not quite as good an experience).
Old Shuffle will still sell for $49 and the new model comes in at a pretty affordable $79. In touch economic times, the challenge is to create products that are not only affordable but also have perceived value. New Shuffle purchases don’t have a stripped $79 iPod. They do have the smallest iPod on the market, that still delivers 10 hours of battery life and a cool new speech UI that doesn’t exist (yet) on the Shuffle’s more expensive family members. This is exactly the type of products that it makes sense for Apple to be working on.
Now, wonder what next Tuesday has in store for us? I’m pretty sure it won’t be a netbook, but that’s another story :)