The iPod Plays a New Tune

So, your teenager has been begging you for an iPod (search) and swears it's not just to listen to music. He may even be telling the truth.

A recently announced deal between Apple (search) and Duke University (search) to give the school's 1,650 incoming freshmen an iPod aims to test the trendy techno-gadget's ability to evolve into something more than a digital music player.

"I think it's awesome. You can't really complain about that, can you?" said John Perkins, a soon-to-be Duke frosh from Orange County, Calif.

Perkins and other Blue Devils-to-be will find the iPods are more than just a music lover's dream welcome-to-college gift. The pods come loaded with academic goodies like audio campus tours and can be used to help students access class schedules, course materials and recorded lectures.

"From what I can understand, the sky is the limit in terms of ways that it can be utilized," said Allison Carpenter, another incoming Duke student.

Carpenter, 18, said she's excited about her free iPod and expects it to facilitate communication between professors and students. Of course, she can also look forward to the cachet of sporting the chic gizmo around campus -- to the chagrin of upperclassmen, who will have to shell out $299 for one.

"It's just a one-year initiative right now, but I think we're approaching it in a truly unique and experimental way to see [in] what ways we can expand and use the technology," said Lynne O'Brien, director of the Duke Center for Instructional Technology.

O'Brien, who is coordinating faculty participation in the program, said the iPods will be used in multiple ways. Professors will have music students download performance pieces from a Duke version of the iTunes site, while foreign language instructors will provide students with audio clips of native speakers with different dialects. Even science classes will use the device with a special microphone to have students record field interviews.

"I would say that one reason for choosing this is because we've been moving toward the idea of a mobile computing environment," said O'Brien.

Students will receive the fourth-generation iPods, which are compatible with both Macintosh and Windows-based systems and hold 20 gigabytes of data — about 10,000 songs worth. Apple is rumored to be in negotiations with other universities to make similar deals.

Originally released in 2001, the iPod has become the must-have digital doodad of movie stars, hipsters, tech geeks and wannabes. Although it was initially positioned as a device that did one thing — play digital music — the increasing number of iPod add-ons and accessories have transformed it into something new and unexpected.

"It's building on the iPod's popularity in a way that I don't think that Apple originally intended," said WIRED magazine product editor Robert Capps.

Some of the add-ons include pPod, a program by a British company that gives iPod users a tongue-in-cheek guide to London's public bathrooms set to tunes like Händel's "Water Music"; Podtender, which includes 900 mixed drink recipes; PodQuest, which enables users to download driving directions from services like MapQuest to their iPod and piPod, which gives New York City iPod aficionados a guide to Big Apple pizzerias.

Trend-watchers like Capps say specialty devices like the iPod will eventually fuse with other 21st-century gizmos like mobile phones.

"I think we're going to see more convergence, because increasing processing power and processing life in these devices will make them able to do more things as well," he said.

Apple has already indicated it plans to collaborate with Motorola to incorporate its digital music services into cell phones.

And with the iTunes music store selling over 100 million tracks since its launch a year and a half ago, customers waiting up to six weeks for some models and some analysts predicting the company will do over $1 billion in iPod sales in 2004, the iPod revolution — and evolution — is in full swing.

"There's an entire industry built around the iPod," Capps said.