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The new click–wheel iPod has brought many good things to we jive addicts; a top–level Shuffle feature (for which I’ve been clamoring for months), a simpler one–hand interface, longer battery life, a lower price… it’s a much improved product.

They call it the 4G iPod.

But is it generation four?

For that matter, was the dock–connector iPod really “3G” material? How about the second–gen’s solid–state–scroller? Do these little changes actually qualify each pod as a distinct generation, or are they more like… cousins? From a biological standpoint, the answer lies with the Gs: incremental improvement through successive iterations of the same basic genetic material; it’s evolution, baby, and we’re sitting pretty at generation four. But from a computer hardware —nay— a fashion accessory perspective, this is just iPod unit 1.3… the fourth “feature release” of the same basic gadget. This click–wheel iPod, or (more fittingly) the July 2004 model iPod, is just a little something to keep us on the leash; and like any good fashion accessory, you should expect to see an upgrade in ten to twelve months. We’ll be falling all over ourselves to get our hands on that one, too.

But, after all this, the question isn’t “why is Apple releasing wave after wave of mostly–identical iPod generations?”, but “when will Apple finally unveil the real next–generation iPod?”. Where is the pod that breaks down barriers and explores uncharted territory? There’s been hearty speculation for, well, as long as there has been an iPod, and no man is safe from his own imagination; so here I am, again, with a dream of a future iPod. A generation–two iPod; something that separates itself from the pack. A color screen alone wouldn’t qualify such a jump, nor would the “dumb storage” model with the video–out dock, and I’ve basically given up on my dreams of an integrated digital camera, phone, and PDA. No, the feature to push the iPod to new frontiers is simple. It’s Wi–Fi.

Wi–Fi and Rendezvous OpenTalk means wireless auto–sync whenever you’re in range of your home network. It means contact sharing, calendar sharing, multiplayer games, and streaming audio. If that whole color screen thing does actually come to fruition, it could mean photo sharing too; and in a really adventurous world, a Wi–Fi–enabled iPod with a microphone attached could be your own personal VoIP audioconferencing solution or even an internet radio station. At its most mundane, this ‘AirPod’ could be the remote control you always wanted for your Express setup.

But these features, as cool and as useful as they are, aren’t good reasons to go bumping up the manufacturing cost and bumping down the potential battery life of the humble iPod. In fact, most new hardware features aren’t a real good reason to do that, but there might be one reason Wi–Fi is worth Cupertino’s attention: iTMS on the go.

iPod toters far and wide use iTunes as a digital jukebox about as often as they use their fireplace to light cigarettes. A fireplace is a great spot for setting things on fire, sure, but if you have a cigarette lighter in your pocket you’re gonna damned well use it. For me, after years of rigorous daily iTunes use, the passion died quickly and quietly for three simple reasons; the first being that I bought an iPod, the second being that I work full–time on a laptop these days (and laptop speakers ain’t nothin’ to write home about), and the third being the lack of iTMS on Australian shores. In a situation like mine, once your iPod has you by the short and curlies, the only reason you have for firing up iTunes is to sync.

For all you lucky jerks in the US, UK, France, and Germany, your reasons for launching iTunes are one more than mine: you can buy songs from the iTunes Music Store. But what if you didn’t have to go to your computer to buy new music? What if you could do it on your sofa? or on campus? or at Starbucks? What happens when you’re in a café with your best buddy and she’s telling you all about this great band she’s discovered, so she gives you a little preview via iPod streaming and you fall in love? (with the band, not the girl; though I’m guessing there’s been some unspoken sexual tension between the two of you for some time now, huh? You stud, you)… you can just buy the album, right there and then, wirelessly.

The interface for such an application, to fit with the iPod’s limited inputs, would have to be incredibly usable —though I doubt Apple would have real trouble on that front— and it might be fair to say that such an endeavor couldn’t be embarked upon without the aforementioned color screen; but the payoff for all this R&D should be obvious… it would put Apple, the iPod, and the iTunes Music Store light years ahead of the competition.

There are, of course, other considerations that might impede an iPod iTMS (or iPMS…), one of which being the two–way sync. The iPod, as an iTMS purchasing agent, would have to be FairPlay–authorized for track playback (there goes the “unlimited iPods” clause), and would have to sync both ways to keep your computer(s) up to date with your purchases. This is a Good Thing™, and, at the same time, this is a Very Bad Thing®. The good part is you get to transfer songs from your iPod to your computer, something you can’t do right now without third–party software, and could thusly keep multiple computers in musical sync without too many hassles. The bad part should already be obvious: to ensure this two–way syncing isn’t abused by file sharers, you would only be able to sync between authorized computers of the same account… making your iPod one of those “5 computers” you’re allowed to authorize for playback. It’s a big tradeoff, some might consider it too big, but only one thing remains certain:

This shit might never even happen. Dream on.