Apple Unlikely To Release Cheaper iPods

Don’t count on seeing dramatically smaller or cheaper iPod music players in the new year, despite Internet rumors that Apple Computer will announce them next week in San Francisco.

For Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs to introduce such a product during his speech Tuesday at Macworld Conference & Expo, Apple would have to either unveil a breakthrough hard-drive technology, begin selling iPods based on the same flash-memory storage cards that many digital cameras use, or adopt a new small drive made by Cornice, a Longmont, Colo., start-up.

Apple does not typically focus its engineering efforts on hard drives. Just last month, an Apple vice president told the Mercury News that the Cupertino company has no plans to make a music player based on flash storage cards. And a spokesman familiar with Cornice’s business said he is not aware of a relationship with Apple.

It is possible for Apple to change the iPod’s shape slightly, as the company did when it introduced slimmer versions a year ago. But the Toshiba hard drives that store music in the iPod are about 2 inches wide by 3 inches tall, and a third of an inch thick — not much smaller than the iPod itself. A similar drive from Hitachi has a slightly wider and shorter shape.

Apple also could drop its prices slightly; its 10-gigabyte iPod sells for $300, while rivals Dell and Creative sell 20-gigabyte models for about $50 less. Apple could drop the entry-level iPod’s price to match those — but it would be out of character for the company, since the iPod, at current prices, seemed to be a strong seller this holiday season.

The third option would be a device based on a miniature hard drive made by Cornice. Rio and RCA began using the 1.5 GB Cornice drive in music players this past summer.

Speculation among Apple fans typically runs rampant in the weeks leading up to Macworld. In recent years, rumor Web sites have cited unnamed sources promising that Apple would announce a tablet computer, a Palm-like organizer, a home theater appliance, and several other items that never materialized. In some cases, the rumor sites get the news right — but more often, they’re off the mark.

“If it’s possible for them to bring it to market with a profit, it will certainly be good for them,” said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research. “They’ve certainly demonstrated that there’s demand for the higher-end units.”

Still, Gartenberg was skeptical. Rumors often circulate before MacWorld among the faithful, or hopeful, and few pan out. Sales of $300 and $400 iPods remain strong, with about 1 million sold in 2003; moreover, Gartenberg said, “the hallmark of Apple has never been lower prices, it’s been the best experience.”

Apple officials did not return calls seeking comment.

We will just have to wait until MacWorld to see what Steve Jobs has in store for us. We would not put it past him to show off some new revolutionary technology.

Source: New York Post, Solicon Valley Time, The Mercury News