The iPod Touch is more than just an iPod

Last week's launch heralds a new era for Apple, and for mobile Web users

More Newton than iPod, more tablet than music player, the new Apple iPod touch unveiled last week by CEO Steve Jobs breaks into a new hardware category that should scare the ultra-mobile PC/Nokia Tablet world.

Apple's much-anticipated launch of the iPod touch this week heralds a new era for Apple's wildly popular line of music and video players. The iPod, which emerged first as nothing more than a portable music player -- albeit one dripping in cool -- grew up to become a music and video device in adolesence and is now a semi-full featured Internet tablet device.

Sure, the iPhone launched last June opened the floodgates in this area, and most of the iPod Touch's technology is leveraged from the iPhone. But the iPhone came with a special surprise inside: you had to sign up with AT&T for two years. (You also had to pay a fairly steep pricef or the hardware, a point Apple attempted to fix with its decision to drop the low-end iphone and cut the price on the other model by US$200 -- a near public relations disaster rectified at the last minute by the offer of a US$100 credit to early-iPhone-adopters.)

Unlike the U.S.-only iPhone, the new iPod touch is a true mass market device with international appeal. Every high school kid from Tokyo to Paris to Albuquerque -- and a lot of their parents -- will decide they absolutely "need" one. Presidents use them, grandmothers use them, soccer moms and NASCAR dads use them. All have used iPods for listening to music, looking at photos and watching videos. Now, for US$299 and US$399, depending on whether you're drooling over the 8GB model or the 16GB model, this device can also take a bigger bite of the workload from the world's laptops and TVs.

The biggest addition to the device -- and the one that is revolutionary -- is Wifi capability with the Safari web-browser. Yes, yes, other music players offer WiFi; Just look at Microsoft's Zune. But the browser is the game changer here, as it was with the iPhone. For weeks now, iPhone owners have been consistently raving that they have, by leaps and bounds, the best mobile browser out there. And they're correct. The scrolling, panning and zooming features in Safari on the iPhone make the browsing experience a pleasure, not the pain it often is on other mobile devices. I've even found myself using the iPhone browser at home while my laptop lingers nearby, unused. There is something extremely useful about being able to put the device in my pocket and head downstairs for a coffee and continue surfing where I left off. Or, in a pinch, who wants to fire up the laptop, connect it to the internet, and browse the Web when you need look no further than your own shirt pocket for the information you need.

I also know of at least one Mac fanboy who hasn't traveled anywhere for years with a laptop who thought nothing of leaving town for a few days tethered to the Web by nothing more than his iPhone. Soon, iPod touch owners everywhere will be able to do virtually the same thing -- as long as WiFi connections are available.

The iPod touch will also give another gentle shove to the quickly evolving landscape of Web applications that are starting to spring up. For starters, a lot of new corporate applications are being built with the Web as the interface. Whether it is SharePoint and Exchange 2007 (which I regularly use on my iPhone), the new crop of Web 2.0 firms like Basecamp and or the myriad of online banking, travel and purchasing sites that have popped up, it is obvious that work applications have gone Web. The ease of using Safari on the iPod touch will eventually make the device a serious contender for business use.

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That doesn't mean the iPod touch doesn't do other things well. Earlier iPods have offered contact, notes and calendar synching for a few generations and they will certainly improve on a screen that's grown in size, offers an intuitive touch-screen interface and a software keyboard. YouTube is already a fantastic application on the iPhone and it will certainly be embraced on the iPod touch. Of course it is, first and foremost, an iPod, so the music, video and audiobook playback -- not to mention photo browsing -- will be best of breed. Oh, and for those already whining about that "paltry" 16GB of storage space on the US$399 model? Look for the ability to stream media from your home computer/server in the next few months.

Apple has also made it easy to buy from the iTunes music store, eliminating the need for the computer intermediary to snag that gotta-have video or tune, especially with the participation of Starbucks. You can bet your double-mocha-latte that that partnership will see some grande growth in the months ahead.

You'll also notice in the advertising for the iPod touch that the face of the device has a lot more room for applications. While Apple will certainly be delivering software additions through upcoming updates, a bevy of hacked apps have already been prepped for the iPhone and will easily be ported to the iPod touch. A and native instant messaging clients are the most popular, but hundreds of others are in development. The fear with unsupported applications is that the process of loading them onto the device isn't supported by Apple and could, therefore, void the iPhone warranty. Additionally, Apple could break them with future software updates. but that isn't stopping developers and brave-hearted users from loading them anyway.

For its part, Apple hasn't said whether it will open up the embedded version of Mac OS X that runs on the iPod touch and iPhone to developers. But interest is certainly there and the temptation to move the platform forward will likely be too great for Apple to keep it locked down.

Whatever the case, when the new iPod touch hits store shelves later this month, consumers will snap them up, bringing to life a whole new generation of fans, Internet-centric iPod users who will soon discover what iPhone users found out two months ago: the mobile Web revolution has begun -- and Apple is leading the way.

Seth Weintraub is a global IT management consultant specializing in the technology needs of creative organizations, including The Paris Times, Omnicom and WPP Group. He has set up and managed cross-platform networks on four continents and is an expert in Active Directory/Open Directory PC and Macintosh integration.