Ruminations on the ROKR

Jobs clearly saved his reality-distorting powers to talk up the amazingly small

Well, the long-awaited iTunes phone is out--and it's not the world-changer so many had thought it might be. In fact, the disappointment among the gadget-erati is palpable. Just read the reader comments at Engadet.com.

Having been to Steve Job's keynote at the Moscone Center, it seems Apple knows it, too. Jobs clearly saved his reality-distorting powers to talk up the amazingly small iPod nano, but was less than mesmerizing while unveiling the iTunes-equipped ROKR made with partner Motorola. In fact, when Motorola executive Ron G. Garriques talked about what an honor it was to have Steve Jobs heap praise on a Moto product, I wondered if he'd seen the same presentation I had. Later that day, in an interview with Jobs, I suggested that it didn't seem Apple had put its best foot forward on this product. His response: "Remember, this isn’t our phone. It’s our iTunes player. If you’re going to judge us, please judge us on that."

Indeed, Apple's actions seem to confirm that it's not expecting a smash hit with this product. It's not running any TV ads for the product. Cingular and Motorola are taking the lead in that department (in pretty impressive fashion, I might add. Cingular has some great spots that look as if they could have been made by Apple or its ad agency, Chiat Day--though they weren't). Also, the ROKR won't be sold in Apple's stores, only in Cingular's. And I figured there would be more of an effort to co-brand the phone. Not so. Other than the iTunes logo on the key used to launch the iTunes client, there's no evidence of Apple's input on the phone. It's not called the iTunes ROKR. Just the ROKR.

Now, I'm not saying this portends anything bad for Apple. On the contrary, I think this is a smart first move by Apple to dip a toe in the music phone market just in case it takes off, while not hurting its iPod goldmine. The best evidence: Apple decision to cap the number of songs that can be played in the phone at 100, even if the customer bought a memory card capable of far more. Jobs says this was because the phone was designed for people who just wanted limited capacity--especially since the phone lacks a click wheel for easy navigation of big music collections. Maybe so, but I'm thinking it also has to with not devaluing other members of the iPod line, like the $99 iPod shuffle. If you could cram the phone with thousands of songs as higher-capacity memory cards come on the market, the shuffle might begin to look pretty lightweight in comparison.

One last thought about yesterday's announcement. Having seen the product of its collaboration with Moto, talk that Apple might do its own phone some time in the future makes more sense to me. Part of what makes Apple so special is the perfectionism--a characteristic that's certainly driven by Jobs, but also exists throughout the company. Even if the company wanted to stray from its go-it-alone approach to product development to do more deals like the one it struck with Moto, I'm just not sure it's possible. In the endless debate about whether Apple should get into the licensing business, as it so famously refused to do with the MacOS, that's a factor to keep in mind.

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