Stage set for Apple's Wednesday event

Apple is famously tight-lipped when it comes to future product announcements. But the company may have tipped its hand about its plans this week when issuing invitations to a Wednesday, September 5 press event at the Moscone West expo hall in San Francisco.

The invitations for Wednesday's event feature the same iPod-wielding silhouette that makes up Apple's ad campaign for its portable music player. And that, plus the large-scale venue selected for the event, has amped up speculation that the company plans to overhaul its iPod line in a significant way.

Specifically, chatter on iPod-focused Web sites and other places Apple fans are likely to hang out suggest that a new "sixth-generation" video iPod may be on the way. The more popular rumors suggest the possibilities of Wi-Fi connectivity or a variation on the "multi-touch" interface used by Apple's much-hyped iPhone.

Photos on the Web have also purported to show a redesigned "fat" iPod nano that uses a screen with a wider aspect ratio than past flash-based iPods. An iTunes ringtone service for iPhone customers has also floated to the fore, and the words on the special event invitation -- "The Beat Goes On" -- has gotten tongues wagging that Apple is, at long last, set to debut The Beatles discography on iTunes. (That last Fab Four-related rumor has been percolating with increasing frequency since Apple resolved its long-standing legal differences with the rock band's similarly named company earlier this year.)

Whatever products ultimately get announced, analysts believe that Apple's choice of a venue--the massive Moscone Center--is a telling sign in its own right.

"You can tell how important an Apple event is by where they hold it," said Needham & Co. research analyst Charles Wolf. "They don't hold events at the Moscone Center unless it's very important."

Wolf suspects Apple has more up its sleeve than just a refresh to the existing product line.

"I would say inferentially if it's merely upgrades to the iPod line, they wouldn't use the Moscone Center," Wolf added. "The last time they used the Moscone Center on their own [outside of a Macworld Expo or WWDC] was when they launched iTunes for Windows."

Phil Leigh, senior analyst at Inside Digital Media, agrees: "I think the most conclusive thing I can say at this point is that this is going to be a big event."

Leigh is hoping that Apple will lower the pricing threshold for video-capable iPods--right now, playing video on an iPod requires an almost US$300 investment from the consumer. He also expects iPods to gain dramatic new features.

The rumors and speculation come at a time almost two years after Apple made its last significant change to the iPod model line. In October 2005, Apple introduced a video-capable hard drive-based model of iPod, along with changes to the iTunes Store that enabled users to buy music videos, short films and TV shows.

Since then, Apple has expanded the offerings on the service to include major broadcast and cable television series from dozens of channels, along with feature-length movies and games for the fifth-generation iPod. Those latter changes were unveiled a year ago at a special event held at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, across the street from the Moscone Center.

Macworld will offer live updates of Apple's announcements, beginning at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific on Wednesday.

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