Go on Steve, just say the word. Say it. "P.D..." Come on, you can do it.

8 September 2007

The iPod Touch is a machine with a missing identity. It's the machine that nobody at Apple dare speak its true name. Steve Jobs presented it as a high-end iPod: a high-end iPod with 10 per cent of the capacity of the top-end iPod Classic. That's mainly a factor of technology. Based on the iPhone - I wouldn't be surprised if the PCB looks like the one on an iPhone with a couple of chips missing - the Touch uses flash memory instead of the Classic's hard drive to store music.

Give it five years or so and the flash memory makers will be knocking out chips so cheap that Toshiba will have to start thinking about what markets it can find for small hard drives. But, in the meantime, nobody in their right mind is going to ship an MP3 player with 160GB of flash memory in it. Not unless they plaster the case with cubic zirconia and market it as the iBling to stupid people.

Apple could have taken the decision to alter the innards to take one of the Toshiba hard drives, but that would probably have made the case a lot thicker, the design far less sleek. Which left Apple with a quandary: you have a sexy looking iPod that actually isn't all that great for holding music.

But it's got WiFi. It's got a browser. It happens to play music. That makes it sound more like a personal digital assistant (PDA) than a music player. It has a calendar and an address book. It seems to be missing an email client, but there is a lot of space for icons on its main screen. It's by no means the most capable PDA on the planet, but it fits better in the range price and featur-wise as one than as a music player with a hotline to the iTunes store.

There are, however, very good reasons why Jobs would go a long way to emphasise the fact that it's more iPod than anything else. One is the curse of the Newton. The minute anyone says Apple and PDA in the same sentence, it's hard not to think of the doomed product that Jobs put out of its misery when he rejoined the company.

Then there is the parlous state of the PDA business itself. It's the product category nobody loves. Sales are getting trashed by high-end phones, like the iPhone itself. IDC's mobile device tracker paints a dismal picture of a product category that once was seen as the future of the PC. Compared with the same period in 2006, sales of PDAs slumped by 40 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Palm, HP, Sharp and others saw sales plummet. The only company in the top five to see growth was Mio. The reason? They make a PDA that is also a satellite-navigation unit. HP makes one as well - the version with the European maps is pretty good value if you look at it as a Tom Tom and PDA rolled into one. However, the rx5915 does not seem to have compensated for declines elsewhere.

But Mio's relative success, and the positioning of the iTouch perhaps, points to the future of the PDA: hidden away. People will buy these products, but they want a major feature as the main draw - GPS, music player, whatever. The idea of a general-purpose tool just doesn't cut it.