All right, I’ve been playing with the iPod Hi-Fi for two whole weeks now and I’ve come to a conclusion that I’ve been dodging since Apple unveiled the thing: it’s an iPod speaker system.

To clarify, it’s a really, really good speaker system. It matches the iPod’s styling very nicely. Designed with clean, uncomplicated lines, it looks like a million bucks and the sound is a lot bigger than the box it’s projected from.

But this column isn’t about the iPod Hi-Fi, which has been reviewed elsewhere in Macworld with great skill and precision. It’s about… wait… did the reviewer talk about the remote that comes with it? The Hi-Fi comes with the exact same remote that ships with Front Row-studly Macs, and it’s that which served to underscore my very first negative conclusions about that accessory. There are some bits of hardware that need lots of buttons. A telephone handset that has just 2, 6 and 9 buttons is of limited use; yes, twelve buttons may give the thing a cluttered look, but those extra digits mean that you no longer have to be very selective about the friends, relatives, and restaurants that you phone.
The same applies to a remote that’s meant to control music, video, DVDs, photo slideshows, and now a speaker system with multiple inputs, all through just six buttons. When you remove buttons from a remote, you also remove functions and flexibility. I’d rather have the buttons. That’s all I’m saying.

Anyway, this column is actually about the week leading up to the grand unveiling, and the tremendous expectations that surrounded the Great New Thing. New product announcements usually fit into predictable slots in Apple’s calendar. It was unusual for Apple to call the press to Cupertino on a week’s notice, even if it was to see “some fun new products”. Before the invites were three hours old, so much energy had been expended in guessing at the upcoming announcement that the activity practically counted as aerobic exercise. A new movie-oriented iPod with a big touch screen? A Mac mini that doubles as a home-theatre component?

By the end of the week, folks on message boards were even dusting off the old Bigfoot-esque rumours about Apple-designed mobile phones and PDAs, for heaven’s sake. Those of you who have small children will correctly identify this sort of behaviour as a sign that the child has become over-stimulated and should be put down for a nap in a darkened room.

The short notice, the meeting hall on the Apple campus instead of offsite, the timing – it all implied a minor announcement, something that would be filed under the “Neato” tag, as opposed to “Holy mother of God.” And yet, when the Hi-Fi was announced, even I initially refused to believe that it was a speaker system.

“Cool,” I initially thought. “And it’s got a built-in AirPort WiFi receiver, so that even when there’s no iPod docked to it, the Hi-Fi can stream audio from any Mac in your house?” No. It’s just a speaker system.

“But it’s got a video-out, right?” I wordlessly countered, even during my briefing. “So that you could, you know, keep the box on top of the TV and use it both for audio and for watching downloaded videos? No. It’s just a speaker system.

“How about a USB 2.0 connector to your Mac?” I wondered, spinning the box around for a 360-degree look. “So it acts as a speaker system for the desktop when there’s no iPod docked to it, plus it makes sure that when you grab your player from the dock and go, it’s loaded with fresh podcasts?” That’s a swell idea... but again, no.

It really was the damnedest thing: it took physical effort (and a nap in a darkened room) to convince myself that (a) the iPod Hi-Fi really was just a speaker system, and more importantly (b) that this was perfectly OK.

During my briefing, phrases from my future review danced in my head. Phrases like “…but as great as the Hi-Fi sounds, it represents a missed opportunity for Apple to once again define a new product category, to create a piece of hardware that transcends mere description and exists as pure function.” But after my nap, I realised this wasn’t at all fair. Apple didn’t set out to transcend… well, whatever the hell it was I’d been going on about. It set out to create a loud, sweet-sounding and neat-looking iPod system. Done, done, and done.

I accepted it. For good measure, I played that Ramones song I like, you know, the one where they only use three chords: that one always leads to clear thinking.

Ever since Steve Jobs returned to the company, Apple has released a consistent and sometimes stunning string of innovations. And in a bizarre twist that handily explains why tech-sector speculators find themselves driving a BMW one year and living in one the next, this track record can truly haunt the company. Non-stop innovation and reinvention is exhausting. It’s also unnecessary. Take that remote control, for instance. Trimming it down to its bare aesthetic functions is a bold choice (my Microsoft Media Center remote has nearly two dozen) that means Apple has to spend a lot of its time explaining why you can’t switch to a DVD’s commentary track in Front Row without first stopping playback. Whereas if you design a common, expected product in a common and expected way, you get to spend most of your time and effort actually selling said product rather than explaining the concept behind it.

But for an Apple product to live up to our expectations it can’t simply be a car; it has to be a flying car. And not just any flying car: it has to fold down to the size of a briefcase at the push of a button, just like the car from the Jetsons cartoon. And, come on, does Apple really expect me to carry around a flying car the size of a whole freaking briefcase?

Microsoft got where it is today – in terms of both its financial success and its creative failure – by consistently conditioning its users to have low expectations. If that were ever to happen with Apple, the company would quite simply have no reason to exist. But sometimes, a speaker system is just a speaker system, and a product that nails the compulsories can be just as important as one that dazzles the judges in the freestyle portion of the competition. MW