Apple slates Sept. 9 event; iPod refresh most likely

iMac revamp a long shot, says analyst; Jobs appearance plans unknown

Apple will host an event next week in San Francisco, most likely the latest in its annual refresh of its iPod line, an analyst agreed today.

Invitations began reaching members of the technology press early Monday for the event, which is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. PT, Wednesday, Sept. 9. The invitations used the tag line "It's only rock and roll, but we like it," a line from the Rolling Stones' song by the same name, and featured an image of someone dancing with an iPod plugged into their ears.

The event will be held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

The announcement was no surprise. Several bloggers, including Computerworld 's Seth Weintraub , picked up on claims by D: All Things Digital that sources had put the iPod-centric event on the calendar for Sept. 9, and that it would not feature the long-rumored tablet-like device.

"The expectations are that Apple will add video camera functionality to the iPod Touch, [still] camera functionality to the Nano and refresh the iTunes software," said Brian Marshall, an analyst at Broadpoint AmTech. "That's pretty much it, although we could potentially see a refresh on the desktop too, lower prices and faster processors," Marshall added, referring to Apple's iMac systems.

Among the rumors that have surfaced in the last month about iTunes is talk that Apple, along with four of the major music labels, will try to boost album downloads -- as opposed to single-track sales -- by bundling new content, including sleeve notes, an interactive booklet, video and more, with album purchases.

It's unlikely Apple will reduce prices of its iPods, said Marshall, with the possible exception of the low-end Shuffle. Instead, the company will probably fall back on its customary practice of beefing up the hardware, particularly the storage space in a given model.

Changes to the iPod Touch are especially important to Apple, Marshall said, because that model -- a near-twin to the iPhone -- is an increasingly-important part of the company's iPod revenue stream. "They're selling more Touches, which helps the ASP [average sales price] and the profitability of the line," said Marshall.

Last month, in an earnings call with Wall Street analysts, Apple executives bragged about iPod Touch's sales, which were up 130 per cent in the second calendar quarter of 2009 when compared to the same period last year.

During that call, Apple's executives admitted that the iPod Touch, as well as the iPhone, which also stores and plays tracks downloaded from iTunes, have cannibalized sales of iPod music players. "We expect our traditional MP3 players to decline over time as we cannibalize ourselves with the iPod Touch and the iPhone," said Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's chief financial officer, in late July.

Today, Marshall seconded the downturn in Apple's iPod business. "We're projecting a decline of 7.6% in [unit] sales during calendar 2009," he said, adding that even with the higher ASP, and higher profit margin, of the iPod Touch, it would be a "Herculean task" for Apple to boost revenues of its music player line this year compared to last.

Last year, Apple held its iPod refresh event on the same date, Sept. 9, when it delivered redesigned iPod Nano and iPod Touch models, and reduced prices for the latter to better fit the price points of the competing iPhone.

A year ago, CEO Steve Jobs ran the event. Since then, Jobs took a five-month medical leave , returning to work near the end of June 2009. It's unknown whether Jobs will make his first public appearance since returning to work at next week's event.

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Gregg Keizer

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