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Apple's Entertainment Roadmap: Simple, Connected, and in the Cloud

Steve Jobs presentation

There were few surprises during today's Apple event, many of the new products—including the touchscreen Nano, a social network, a cheaper Netflix-toting Apple TV, and front-facing-camera-toting iPod Touch—were rumored with surprising accuracy. But put together, these announcements reveal a lot about where Apple is pushing its entertainment division.

The Fourth Leg: Apple TV

At the 2008 World Wide Developer Conference, CEO Steve Jobs showed a three-legged stool during his presentation. Each leg represented one part of Apple's business: Music, iPhone and Mac. After the event, many people wondered where Apple TV fit in—where was the fourth leg? Today, we found out.

The new Apple TV is streamlined to a fault, and forgoes two major elements that just about every other competing media streamer offers: internal and external storage. Apple TV has no internal storage, like a hard drive or flash storage for you to store the movies you own.

"People don’t want to think about managing storage, they just want to watch their shows," Jobs said during the event. "They don’t want to sync to a computer, most don’t even know what that is. And they want whatever the hardware is to be silent, cool, and small."

Removing that hard drive is one way Apple is able to reduce the cost of the device, but the in-sourced A4 chip—which is now used in the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Apple TV—likely provides the biggest cost benefit for the company.

Until now, Apple TV was a hobby for Jobs. With the second generation of the device, Apple aims to become truly competitive in the TV and movie market. While only ABC and FOX signed on as pilot partners, Jobs said: "We think the rest of the studios will see the light." He could have said the same thing when Apple first began selling music.

Up Into The Cloud

All the TV shows and movies come from the cloud. You to rent TV shows and movies from iTunes, or watch streaming video from Netflix. None of it is downloaded, none of it is permanent—unlike the music on your iPod, or even the apps on your iPhone. The Apple TV is the latest in a line of new Apple products that sees the tech world this way, with the first being perhaps the MacBook Air, which eliminated the optical (DVD) drive.

iOS 4.1, the next iteration of the iPhone operating system, and iOS 4.2, which is aimed at iPad, also add to the theme of simple, cloud-based computing. Apple's latest iPhone app, Game Center, is a wireless multiplayer gaming powerhouse.

The iPad has been a huge hit, but some find it an inadequate laptop replacement for a couple simple reasons: It can't print, and it can't multitask. The next version of iOS 4 fixes all that, and those little tweaks may make the difference for a lot of buyers.

iTunes 10, along with the new "Ping" social network, is another example of Apple's movement into the cloud. The new iTunes apes ideas from streaming and social music pioneers like MOG and Spotify, combining them with traditional social networking services like Facebook and Twitter. And it will work not only on your computer, but also on your iPhone or iPod Touch.

Whether it takes off or sits ignored will largely depend on execution. Apple has a huge built-in audience—160 million users in 23 countries. But remember, Google Buzz had a similarly huge audience, and we all know how that's turned out.

Touchscreen Everything

What about the existing, and most profitable leg of Apple's stool? Jobs said the latest line of iPods represented the most important upgrade since they were introduced in 2001. But in truth, the iPods were perhaps the least thrilling piece of today's news. The new iPod Shuffle is, you know, a Shuffle. It does what it does. The new Nano is a really peculiar little toy—but will a touchscreen that small (1.54 inches!) be usable? It's certainly an advance, but it doesn't revolutionize the device in any unexpected way. 

Maybe the most noteworthy piece of today's announcement is that the clickwheel, one of Apple's most iconic design features, is officially dead. The iPod Classic was nowhere to be found today—it's still for sale on Apple's site, of course. But the iPod is likely to be all touch from here on out.

But as with the optical drive, internal storage, and expandable USB storage, Apple is sacrificing the clickwheel to move forward. Apple's new lineup is sleeker than ever and more connected than ever—sometimes to its detriment. But, once again, Apple is living just a little bit in the future. If it didn't deliver a signature element of risk in its new product launches, well, it'd be Sony.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

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