TECH & YOU PODCAST
The new iPod Touch from Apple (AAPL) is in a class by itself. It's like an iPhone, only without the phone. It's a music player, though not the best choice for that role. It's a wonderful video player and Web browser, despite certain limitations. Most important, it's beautiful, and I bet it sells like crazy, even at $299 for an 8-gigabyte version and $399 for 16 GB.
The Touch screams out for comparison to the iPhone, which costs the same as the 16-GB version but offers half the storage. The new iPod has the same general appearance, with a similar 3 1/2 -in. display, but is shorter, noticeably thinner, and features the iPod's trademark polished metal back. Its basic software is the same as the iPhone's, though tweaked in some interesting ways. And Wi-Fi is the only wireless option. That means no voice service, but also no commitment to pay AT&T (T) at least $1,400 over a two-year contract.
Although it's called an iPod, the Touch isn't the best choice if you mainly want a music player. The iPod Classic, at $249 for 80 GB, is much more capacious, and the newly video-enabled Nano, $149 for 4 GB, is much cheaper. Besides, devices optimized for one function—playing music—do it better than the most elegant multipurpose product. The lack of dedicated volume-control buttons on the Touch is especially annoying.
THE CHIEF ATTRACTION of the Touch is the Web browser, which is shared with the iPhone and is by far the best on any handheld device. None of the others let you magnify or shrink the contents of a large Web page by spreading or pinching your thumb and index finger, or drag a page just by touching the screen. But the Touch shares a major defect with the iPhone: the inability to play Adobe (ADBE) Flash, which prevents many videos and Web pages from displaying properly or at all. This would be easy to fix if Apple would just do it.
Wi-Fi can also be used to download music, but not videos, directly from the iTunes store. (The same capability has been added to the iPhone.) And the Touch can view a selection of videos from YouTube (GOOG). But the iPhone's weather and stock-price applications have been left off the new device. And with no phone service, there's no text messaging, other than resorting to Web-based chat programs.
E-mail is a much bigger omission. You can use the browser to reach Web services such as Hotmail, but they are hard to navigate on the small screen. The iPhone's mail application, while not great, is much better than this. Apple apparently believes you should buy an iPhone if you want real e-mail.
Don't even think about using the Touch's Wi-Fi for a Skype-like phone service. Programmers often figure out how to add applications, as they have to the iPhone. But Apple has made sure hackers won't turn the Touch into a phone. It has neither an audio input jack nor Bluetooth wireless, so there's no way to connect a microphone.
With the Touch, you're also getting about half a personal digital assistant. You can download your calendar from Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook, but you cannot edit or add appointments, nor can you get updates over Wi-Fi. Contacts are a different, happier story: You can add, delete, or edit those synced with Yahoo! (YHOO) or Outlook.
Apple's marketing mavens are very clever folks, and I'm sure that all of the decisions over what to include and what to leave off result from careful calculations. The omissions I've described probably won't make a dent in the soon-to-be explosive sales of the Touch. Still, it's a shame Apple has delivered such a beautiful and well-conceived piece of hardware with locked-down software that makes it far less useful than it could be.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
By Stephen H. Wildstrom