The iPod Is Dead, Long Live the iPod

Will Apple kill the iPod? Or will it transform it into a new, more drool-worthy device? We'll know in less than 24 hours.

Nothing generates rumor and speculation in the tech world more than an Apple press conference. So Wednesday's music-themed event in San Francisco is whipping up a whirlwind of gossip, ranging from buzz about changes to the iPod lineup to a new iPad to the possibility of a revamped Apple TV device.

The Apple iPod kicked digital music into high gear, and the company traditionally introduces its new models at a September event. But can the company keep the iPod relevant, especially now that more people are using their smartphones (including Apple's own iPhone) to play music?

"Today, the ubiquitous music player has become less relevant to the company that essentially owns that product category," said CNET reporter Erica Ogg. Apple sold 9.4 million iPods in the most recent quarter -- a big number, but one that actually represents the fifth-straight quarterly decline in year-over-year iPod sales.

But though Apple is selling fewer iPods, people are buying more of its higher-priced -- and more-profitable -- iPod touch models, which essentially are iPhones without the phone. Apple's high-end music player has the most features and functionality -- and strays the furthest from the iPod's central concept, playing music. Yet analysts think it has the most potential of any of Apple's music players.

"The most strategic iPod is the Touch," said Ross Rubin, executive director at industry research firm NPD Group. "If Apple can add FaceTime to the iPod touch, it could turn videoconferencing into more of a mainstream phenomenon within the home."

To do that, the iPod Touch would require rear- and forward-facing cameras, and it might also include a feature culled from the iPad: wireless 3G data access. These transformations would move the music player further still from its origins, but would leave the company with a very capable gizmo.

And 3G data access could be revolutionary, in the sense that it would allow owners to make calls without a cellular voice contract. It would certainly upset the traditional wireless market, analysts say, so the 3G feature may be a long-shot. (Note that the iPad lacks a camera and videoconferencing features.)

In other words, it might not be a music player, but it sure sounds fun.

The Touch will doubtless get some sort of upgrade, though its nature is yet unknown. Look for more video available on the device and expect Steve Jobs to underscore the player's latest feature, streaming movies from Netflix.

The low end of the music-player lineup is the candy-bar-shaped Nano, which currently sells for as little as $149. Widely expected -- with a yawn -- is a new, smaller iPod Nano. Photos of smaller, squarish cases for it have already appeared online.

Most eyes look beyond the iPod market, in spite of Apple's music-themed invitation.

"The most interesting rumor is probably the iTV -- a reinvention of the "hobby Apple TV," says PC's editor-in-chief Lance Ulanoff. The Apple TV has been generally regarded as an also-ran in the race to connect the Internet and digital video to the home television. But the possibility of a new model has sparked speculation that a revised Apple TV device could do for television what the iPod did for music.

It would also be an acknowledgement that Apple plans to compete more seriously against Google's forthcoming Internet TV box.

Some Apple followers expect Jobs to announce a sub-$100 set-top box. These rumors have been encouraged by reports from Hollywood that a couple of networks are ready to let Apple rent episodes of popular shows like "Glee" for just 99 cents. Such a move could undercut current online sales of such shows, which typically cost $3.99 on Apple's iTunes Store.

Of course, bloggers and Apple fans have tossed around a welter of even wilder rumors, including the perennial hope that the company could finally offer The Beatles music catalog online (not likely).

"The most outlandish (read ridiculous) rumor is that Apple will unveil a mid-sized iPad," said Ulanoff. "This 7-inch device would fit neatly between the iPod touch and full-sized iPad." However, Ulanoff and most other tech experts don't think such a product makes sense. So don't expect to see it on stage with Jobs tomorrow.

What do you want to see? A new iPod, a small iPad, or something completely different? Leave a comment and let us know!

Stay with for complete coverage of Apple's event Wednesday at 1 p.m. EST.