Other than football fans, there are probably few people in America happier to see the month of September than Apple executives.
Apple will look to put the last six weeks behind it with the expected launch of new iPods this week during one of its trademark media events in San Francisco on Tuesday. This summer, the company received a stark reminder that while its singular ability to produce a technology event still generates buzz, the products must match that hype.
The rumors regarding this particular launch event, Apple's fourth September iPod-related event in as many years, have been fairly consistent and sensible. We expect new iPod Nanos that do away with the ugly squat design, a revamped iPod Touch at a lower price, a higher-capacity iPod Shuffle, and a possible grab-bag item from the MacBook/Beatles/iTablet bin.
Those products aren't quite as ambitious as the iPhone 3G, or the MobileMe service, the launches of which went somewhat awry this July. But in a way, perhaps they are more important, because the iPod represents Apple to more people around the world than any other Apple product by far.
Ever since CEO Steve Jobs stunned a September 2005 crowd with the unveiling of the super-slim iPod Nano, Apple's ability to (mostly) follow through on the hype generated by its events has turned the company into a tech powerhouse.
More than any of its rivals, Apple has managed to continuously release products that are hip, stylish, easy to use, and functional (we'll forget about the iPod Hi-Fi for the purposes of this discussion). It's why Apple has the best consumer satisfaction scores by far in its industry, and why the Mac and the iPhone are hot sellers.
But for a company so skilled at one form of communication--the carefully orchestrated product release--Apple has had a hard time this summer connecting with disgruntled customers.
A chink in Apple's armor has surfaced: its secretive nature creates a mystique around the company when the products are excellent, but that same communications strategy makes it appear aloof and indifferent when customers are angry over product glitches.
Apple has been forced to give away two months worth of MobileMe subscriptions in order to try to make up for the debacle that was the migration from .Mac to MobileMe, an Internet service that's designed to let you share data between Macs, PCs, and iPhones. And it's scrambling to patch perhaps its buggiest software release in years, the iPhone 2.0 software, which has produced a laundry list of problems, such as fuzzy reception, persistent application crashes, a laggy keyboard, and the bizarre "iPhone cubism" camera issue.
Thankfully for Apple, none of these issues seem to have really affected sales as of yet. Mac sales are growing at a rapid pace, and new notebooks arriving in relatively short order should help that trend continue. And despite all its glitches, the iPhone 3G is selling briskly; expect Jobs to reveal just how many Apple has sold to date during a week in which the mobile industry is gathering in San Francisco for the CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment Show.
So if the new iPods live up to Apple's usual standard for its products, Apple should be able to shrug off the months of July and August, and get ready for the last quarter of the calendar year, which is usually a blowout one for the company.
In any event, it's not like there is any other company pushing Apple in the personal-music player market these days. Microsoft's new Zune player made an appearance last week without provoking a stampede to Best Buy. While some old foes have made a little noise in recent months, few other competitors seem all that interested in taking down the 800-pound gorilla of the MP3 player market.
Expect the usual dog-and-pony show on Tuesday as Apple shows off its latest batch of iPods, perhaps augmented by some hip cool rock band all the rage with the kids these days. But watch the pace of iPod sales following the event to see if Apple has truly moved past its summer of woe and regained its launch event magic.
For the first time in a long time, even die-hard Apple fans may be thinking twice about being the first on their block to snap up Apple's latest offering.