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Apple Computer has felt design accolades rain upon it like so much confetti since the company first unveiled the iPod music player in October 2001. Devotees cite its sleek exterior, warm curves, and reassuringly simple-yet-powerful center control wheel. But strip away the casing, and the actual display of the devicewith its monochromatic, roughly 4-point fontharks back to DOS prompts and Pong-era computer design. If allowed to remain this way, the iPod seriously risks stagnating.

Just look at the thing. The iPods anemic display stands in jarring contrast to the obvious care that went into designing the unit’s casing.  This shortcoming is limiting the device’s growth potential at a time when Apple ought to be seriously examining the next move for the product. (An Apple spokeswoman said the company doesnt comment on the future direction of products.) Apple has already ripped out most of the pages from its playbook: It introduced the design-centric product, announced more storage, then introduced the iPod Mini for the fashion conscious crowd. Whats next? Well, if the company wants to continue its market-leading status, it should introduce color-screen models of the iPodand begin offering Apple-endorsed non-music applications for it as well. 

Two factors now align to show Apple how it can greatly expand the iPods sphere of influence (and revenues). First, there was the June 2 announcement by Toshiba that it increased the capacity of its 1.8-inch hard drive (the one used by iPod) to 60 gigabytes20 gigabytes more than its previous high-end unit in that form factor. Sixty gigabytes is more music [storage] than anyone will ever need, says Phil Leigh, an analyst with Inside Digital Media. I have music geek friends who will argue that point, but its fair to say that the majority of iPod users wont reach the upper registers of their storage capacity anytime soon. Increasing the capacity by 50 percent cries out for other uses to fill that cavernous drive.

Second, Apples overwhelming success with the iPod is threatened by many new entrants in digital music. Sony launched its Sony Connect online music store last month, and Microsoft will  be debuting its digital music service in October. Sony also is expected to introduce a new digital music device through its Aiwa division. And it wont be long before the storage capabilities of cell phones make it practical to hold a personal jukebox worth of songs on a phone.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has resisted calls to offer non-music applications on the iPod, most famously quipping, Its the music, stupid during an April press conference commemorating the one-year anniversary of the iTunes Music Store. But introducing a color screen doesnt mean abandoning a music-only focus. With a color screen and beefier hard drive, consumers downloading iTunes songs could also fetch an image file of the album cover art. Or for an incremental additional fee, users could get the songs video, or at least a video snippet.

Its clear that iPod users are getting restless, casting about forand creating themselvesnew applications for their devices. Earlier this month,  the Wall Street Journal described the small-but-growing community of programmers who have written non-music applications for the iPod. Examples include maps, games, and even a Windows Explorer emulator that lets users access their iPod files through a familiar PC-like interface. For legal reasons, Apple cant endorse these unregulated third party applications. But there’s nothing stopping the company from writing a quick few lines of code that would allow iPod users to store and view photographs.

These are good times for Apple. It tripled earnings in its last quarter from the year-ago period, and sold more than 800,000 iPods during that time as well. It rules the legitimate digital music world, and its just-announced AirPort Express shows it wants its users enjoy digital music on their stereos as well as computers. To continue its dominance, the company needs to figure out other uses for its iPod device. Is giving its users a color screen too much to ask?

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