Thursday, September 10, 2009

Stiff Competition: Apple’s 9/9/09 iPod Conference

your apple IIe has died of dysentery Apple yesterday held its annual giant iPod expo thing, the event where Steve Jobs dons his ceremonial garb and tells the music-loving gadget-obsessed public what they want in an MP3 player this year.

This year’s event was perhaps more evolutionary than ever before, with announcements ranging from mildly pointless (who was clamoring for a camera in their iPod Nano?) to completely unsurprising (lowered prices, faster processors for iPod Touch). Why then, if I am determined to be such a negative Nancy about the whole affair, am I writing about it in the first place?

I want to talk about two things and what they, considered together, mean: iTunes 9, and the iPod/Phone as a gaming device.

At the end of July, it was official: after months of looking the other way, Nintendo finally acknowledged that Apple and its touchscreen devices were stealing sales from their DS juggernaut. Not that DS sales are bad by any means, but the iPhone has managed to do what Sony and its Playstation couldn’t: make Nintendo sweat.

I don’t think Apple set out to make its iPhone a gaming device, I really don’t. Apple’s main goal with the iPhone has always been to make a usable computing device that fits in your pocket, one that could be a practical replacement for a laptop if necessary. Yes, playing games has always been one of the things that it can do, but I don’t think that Apple expected the iPhone and iPod touch to compete directly with dedicated gaming systems from the like of Nintendo and Sony. At least, that’s not how it started.

Yesterday, Apple went on the offensive, slamming the competition in the same hyperbolic terms they’re famous for in the home computing market. Here’s an example: Two years ago, when Apple released OS X 10.5 Leopard, Apple marketed the product as having “300 new features.” Six of those features were screensavers, each counted individually as one feature. Ten of those features were minor tweaks to the DVD player application. When Apple announces at a press conference that its App store has 21,178  games, you can bet that they’re counting every single goddamn fart app. It’s a big number, sure, but it’s more than a little disingenuous.

But I digress. Apple is going after the game market. They’ve got Assassin’s Creed 2. They’ve got Madden. They got Ubisoft people up on stage with them. And, most importantly, a flop on the iPhone is much less expensive than a flop on any dedicated gaming console – money is easier to make and harder to lose. This is a big deal, and it’ll be interesting to see how Sony and Nintendo, with their rudimentary at best understanding of the Internet and how it works, react to keep game developers interested in their respective platforms.

Next, iTunes 9, a product more remarkable not for what it does but for what it doesn’t do. Apple wraps its latest music player in another, slightly uglier metallic skin, while letting you manage your iPhone’s Apps from within iTunes. The iTunes store has also been revamped, and now you can get suggestions for Apps that you might like based on the ones you already use. Nice, I guess, but there’s nothing game changing.

What’s missing in iTunes 9? There were rumors making the rounds pre-launch that this version would be the one to open iTunes up, to let third-party MP3 players in from the cold. Not only was that not true, but Apple also (again) went out of its way to block any MP3 players that had been engineered by their manufacturers to work with iTunes. From Apple, this is a clear statement that any money they might make by letting generic MP3 players use iTunes is less important than (1) profit they make from their iPod line and its enormous profit margin and (2) keeping their platform closed. Again, same tack as with their computers – any money they could make by selling OS X for any ol’ PC is less valuable to Apple than selling Macs, and it’s easier to keep your software running well when you control every facet of the hardware on which it runs.

So what do these two things have in common? They frame Apple’s strategy moving forward, painting a perfect picture of the company – when they expand into new markets, they’re so used to being the plucky underdog that they’ve become very good at it. They know the marketing tactics that work, and the ever-present halo surrounding their company means they get credit when things go their way and a free pass from customers and the press when things don’t. Their strategies are consistent across all of their product lines, while Microsoft can’t even get Powerpoint for Windows and Powerpoint for Mac to display the same slideshow the same way. Yesterday’s iPod event may not have been a big deal in and of itself, but it shows an aggressive company firing on all cylinders, and it’s one I’d hate to have to compete against in any market.