Think cautious

Mr. Jobs cranked up the RDF once again this past week by introducing perhaps the most conservative new iPod design imaginable and then convincingly presenting it as daring and innovative.

Ask yourself this. How could the new iPod have been more cautiously designed? Well, what if it didn’t include any kind of video support at all? Wouldn’t that have been even safer? No, not in a climate where video features have been seen as the next logical step for the iPod line for almost a year. Omitting video would have actually been “daring.” Of course, there’s a big overlap between “daring” and “stupid.” Any way you look at it, every aspect of the new iPod plays it safe.

Make it thinner, but keep the other dimensions about the same so it still works with existing docks and accessories. Add video capabilities to ensure the expected “video iPod” soundbite, but don’t make the new iPod look like a video player by making the screen too big. When forced to show video playing on the iPod, show a music video, if possible. Remember, it’s (still) all about the music.

And that’s fine, really. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about the video store, the economics of selling TV shows online, or any of that brave new stuff. I’m just talking about the device itself. It’s a thinner iPod with a slightly bigger screen and H.264 playback in hardware. Fine, I’m down with that. Santa, please send one to replace my 20GB 3G iPod.

But could it have been better? More innovative? Smarter? Daring, even? Oh yes. Let’s talk about the “real” video iPod. You know, the one that’s basically “all screen”—maybe even a touch screen. Let’s talk HD resolution, 720p at least, for the screen (if not necessarily for the video downloads). And where’s the 80GB model anyway?

Okay, maybe that’s too much fanboy fantasy and not enough reality. Let’s get more pedestrian. How about a tougher coating on the iPod screen? Scratches will happen, sure, but the little guy should at least put up a decent fight. We (apparently) have the technology. We can rebuild him!

And how about that dock connector? Has Apple forgotten what we’ve all learned from Palm and Nintendo? Thin connectors with densely packed contacts are not durable. At least Apple has just one such connector (so far) and it works without any weird contortions or unhealthy spine-crunching sounds (ahem, Palm), and no blowing is required (Nintendo—and yes, I know it’s the wrong thing to do, but who can resist? It’s part of our shared heritage; embrace it!).

Apple reportedly modeled the FireWire connector design on the Gameboy link cable connector, and that was an admirable sentiment. Think simple, durable, and able to withstand the abuse of small children. Granted, the iPod dock connector also needs to be small (or at least thin), but there’s still a lot of distance between a Tonka-toy connector and a tiny, delicate flange with dozens of hair-thin contacts. At some point, Apple should bite the bullet and rethink the iPod dock connector. The dawning of the “video iPod” age was as good a time as any. Another missed opportunity.

(Yes, there’s a dirty secret that nullifies my dock connector complaints: you’ll almost certainly be buying a new iPod long before you hose the dock connector. New iPods come out all the time, each better than the last. You’ll give in before the connector gives out. Also, that battery sealed inside your current iPod isn’t going to last forever, and replacements are a significant portion of the cost of the new iPod that you really want anyway. You are beaten! It is useless to resist.)

Finally, what’s with the return to sharp edges? I thought we left that behind after the ever-so-slightly over-designed first-generation iPod shed its sharp-cornered upper skin for the more hand-pleasing curves of the second-gen and later iPods. Sharp corners returned to the iPod line with the Shuffle, then the Nano, but at least those are light-weight devices that are less likely to dig into hand flesh. Now sharp corners are back on the full-sized iPods and I don’t think it’s an improvement.

So, let’s sum up, Steve Jobs-style. (Visualize the appropriate slides.) The new iPod: slightly thinner, slightly bigger screen, plays little videos. We here at Apple obviously spent most of our time and energy dragging Big Media kicking and screaming towards bags of free money and negotiating draconian deals with parts suppliers to keep our margins healthy. Please bear with us. We’ll have a some really neat new iPod hardware next year, we swear. In the meantime, hey, new iPod, right? You know you want one.

This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.