Analysis: The iPod touch is much more than just an iPod

This week's launch heralds a new era for Apple, and for mobile Web users

More Newton than iPod, more tablet than music player, the new Apple Inc. iPod touch unveiled this week by CEO Steve Jobs breaks into a new hardware category that should scare the ultramobile PC/Nokia Tablet world.

Apple's much-anticipated launch of the iPod touch this week heralds a new era for Apple's wildly popular line of music and video players. The iPod, which emerged first as nothing more than a portable music player -- albeit one dripping in cool -- grew up to become a music and video device in adolescence and is now a semi-full-featured Internet tablet device.

<br></br>Apple's touch-screen iPod

Apple's touch-screen iPod

Sure, the iPhone launched last June opened the floodgates in this area, and most of the iPod touch's technology is leveraged from the iPhone. But the iPhone came with a special surprise inside: You had to sign up with AT&T for two years. (You also had to pay a fairly steep price for the hardware, a point Apple attempted to fix with its decision to drop the low-end iPhone and cut the price on the other model by $200 -- a near public relations disaster rectified at the last minute by the offer of a $100 credit to early-iPhone-adopters.)

Unlike the U.S.-only iPhone, the new iPod touch is a true mass market device with international appeal. Every high school kid from Tokyo to Paris to Albuquerque -- and a lot of their parents -- will decide they absolutely "need" one. Presidents use them, grandmothers use them, soccer moms and NASCAR dads use them. All have used iPods for listening to music, looking at photos and watching videos. Now for $299 and $399, depending on whether you're drooling over the 8GB model or the 16GB model, this device can also take a bigger bite of the workload from the world's laptops and TVs.

The biggest addition to the device -- and the one that is revolutionary -- is Wi-Fi capability with the Safari Web browser. Yes, yes, other music players offer Wi-Fi; just look at Microsoft's Zune. But the browser is the game changer here, as it was with the iPhone. For weeks now, iPhone owners have been consistently raving that they have, by leaps and bounds, the best mobile browser out there. And they're correct. The scrolling, panning and zooming features in Safari on the iPhone make the browsing experience a pleasure, not the pain it often is on other mobile devices. I've even found myself using the iPhone browser at home while my laptop lingers nearby, unused. There is something extremely useful about being able to put the device in my pocket and head downstairs for a coffee and continue surfing where I left off. Or, in a pinch, who wants to fire up the laptop, connect it to the Internet and browse the Web when you need to look no further than your own shirt pocket for the information you need.

I also know of at least one Mac fan boy who hasn't traveled anywhere for years with a laptop who thought nothing of leaving town for a few days tethered to the Web by nothing more than his iPhone. Soon, iPod touch owners everywhere will be able to do virtually the same thing -- as long as Wi-Fi connections are available.

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