Apple Loses Its Cool in Latest Product Announcements

Now it's clear what kind of damage the rumor mill can do to a company such as Apple, which relies on excitement generated by its product announcements to propel growth each quarter. In the week leading up to yesterday's presentation of "fun new products," the Apple rumor mill promised the moon and the stars. Apple would introduce a movie download service, it said. Intel-based iBooks. A true video iPod with a large, wide-screen display. A living room-capable Mac mini with digital video recording (DVR) features. The list of products was so extensive, in fact, that the Microsoft rumor mill responded with "Origami," an upcoming mini-Tablet PC that might or might not (note: it won't) be Microsoft's answer to the iPod.

Too bad it was all hype and wishful thinking. Apple announced exactly three products Tuesday, and not one of them is particularly exciting. The first, an Intel-based Mac mini, is $100 more expensive than its predecessor, and the base model ships with a low-end single-core processor and integrated video, both of which are designed for entry-level laptops. The second, an iPod speaker for the living room, costs $350 and doesn't even come with an iPod: You have to supply that yourself. The third product--seriously--is an iPod slipcase.

In short, there's nothing exciting here, unless you didn't know that Apple is moving more and more into consumer electronics. Stung by numerous third-party partners that have been making millions of dollars on iPod accessories during the past year, Apple has been getting more aggressive in recent months about marketing its own iPod accessories. The latest is the iPod Hi-Fi: a boombox-like device that resembles the ubiquitous Bose Wave music system seen in audiophiles' homes and comes with a similarly extravagant price tag. (Interestingly, Bose's iPod speaker system, the SoundDock digital music system, costs $50 less than Apple's offering.)

Apple also announced a $99 leather iPod slipcase, with versions for the iPod with video and iPod nano. Yes, that's $99. For a slipcase.

Even the new Mac mini takes on a decidedly consumer electronics bent with its device-like simplicity and a new version of the lackluster Front Row software, which provides a remote-control-friendly front-end to digital music, videos, and photos. The version included with the Mac mini adds the ability to stream digital media content from other Macs in the house. That will come in handy for that tiny minority of people who have more than one Mac, I suppose.

Is Apple a victim of its own success? It seems like we've become jaded about being blown away every time the company introduces a new product. But these decidedly bland updates are unexciting compared with what the rumor mill promised and what previous announcements delivered. Surely, Apple can do better than this.



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