The iconic iPod music player took a step in an ambitious new direction yesterday, as Apple Computer Inc. announced that users will be able to purchase, download and watch videos on new versions of the popular gadget.
New iPod users will be able to download episodes of ABC TV shows such as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" from Apple's iTunes online music store for $1.99 starting the day after the shows air. The online music store also now offers 2,000 music videos and short movies from Pixar Animation Studios at the same price.
Apple changed the landscape of online music with the first iPod four years ago by showing that consumers will pay for songs despite the wide availability of free pirated music on the Web.
With its new iPod, Apple is trying to position itself as a trailblazer in a new world and a new market -- where more and more video content is available online, and where many competing consumer electronics makers are trying to gain prominence.
Sony's PlayStation Portable has struggled to catch on as a mobile video player, and this week, satellite TV company Dish Network unveiled its own handheld video device. Still other new types of devices are offering to replace the VCR or otherwise latch on to the appeal of video, including cell phones, TiVos and Microsoft's Xbox.
While some experts question whether consumers really want portable video, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs claimed a built-in advantage for his product yesterday: It's an iPod, a brand already selling well and enjoying pop-culture status.
"Because millions of people around the world will buy this new iPod to play music, it will quickly become the most popular portable video player in history," Jobs said.
Video content is a fragmented commodity on the Web, but if the new iPod's video playback feature catches on, that could change.
Previous generations of iPods gave rise to a new form of home-brewed Internet broadcasting called "podcasting," and it already appears possible that the new iPod could spark similar behavior for online video content. Shortly after Apple's announcement, a church in Wisconsin said it would launch a series of devotional two-minute weekly video features optimized for the video iPod.
The device is thinner than the original iPod, but its screen is slightly bigger, at 2.5 inches. It comes in two models: one with 60 gigabytes of memory that can hold about 150 hours of video and costs $399, and a version with half that capacity that will sell for $299. Both will be available with either a black or a white case and will contain a few new software widgets such as a world clock and a stopwatch.
Apple yesterday also unveiled the iMac G5 desktop computer, featuring a built-in webcam and updated multimedia software.
The announcements come just five weeks after the company introduced a credit-card-size iPod called the Nano. The company says it has sold more than 1 million of those so far.
Roger L. Kay, president of research firm Endpoint Technologies Inc., was skeptical that the video player would be an overnight hit. Kay predicted that the gadget may appeal to a young generation that grew up with their eyes glued to a Nintendo Game Boy but said he doubted that many older iPod fans will find much time to watch videos on the devices -- or invest the 10 to 20 minutes it would take to download the latest episode of "Lost."
The editor of one prominent iPod site, iLounge.com, said yesterday that the video iPod was a step in the right direction for Apple but that the file quality looked a little low when the device was connected to a bigger screen.
"It's not as impressive when you look at it on a computer screen or a TV screen," said Jeremy Horwitz, the site's editor. "People expecting to be impressed may be disappointed."
Many analysts said, however, that they were simply impressed that Apple persuaded a TV network to sell its shows in this way. The popularity of pocket-size video playback devices has always been sharply limited by the amount of content available for them, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.
"Companies have been trying to break into this space for some time," Gartenberg said. "But the question has always been: Where will the premium, legal video content come from?" Gartenberg predicted that other networks might soon follow ABC's lead in making their shows available for the iPod's video format.
Mike McGuire, research director at Gartner Inc., agreed. "It's hard to understate the importance of that particular agreement," he said. "It's huge."
A video-playing iPod had been speculated about by analysts and Mac fans for at least a year, and Apple's secrecy in advance of the announcement built hype into such a frenzy that Mac news and rumor sites crashed or slowed to a crawl in the hours leading up to the announcements.
Computer and iPod sales often lag in the days leading up to an announcement from Apple. But New Bern, N.C., resident Mike Afflerbach bought an iPod on Friday and said he didn't feel buyer's remorse.
Afflerbach said he didn't need video playback on the device and worried that the new feature would tend to eat up the gadget's battery life.
He also doesn't need the gadget to get any tinier, he said. "I don't really want it to get any smaller," he said. "It's not like I need to have it performing endoscopic surgeries or anything."
ABC shows including "Desperate Housewives," left, and "Lost" will be available for video iPods the day after they air.Apple unveiled a video-playing version of its iPod yesterday, along with a new iMac computer and a new version of its iTunes software.