Apple had the balls to scrap one of its most popular ever products when it ditched the iPod mini in favour of its latest digital music player. The lovely new member of the iPod family certainly makes the mini look like a maxi – an Austin Maxi. Indeed, in comparison, it’s little wonder that the first flash-based iPod shuffled – although it tips the scales at around half the weight, the shuffle’s a right little fatty stood next to the new boy.

The iPod nano is so sick-makingly thin, it’s bulimic. After you’ve synced it with iTunes, it probably sticks its USB cable down its Dock connector to shed a few songs. It can hide behind the width of two CompactFlash cards standing back to back without sucking its click wheel in.

Could an iPod get any thinner than 0.69cm? Of course. We were stunned by the mini’s petite waistline, then rocked by the shuffle’s Twiggy statistics. The nano’s just taken anorexia to the next stage. We shouldn’t be celebrating such freakish thinness. We should be commenting how much healthier the standard iPod’s looking. We’ll draw a huge curtain round the subject of other manufacturers’ digital music players. These so-called “iPod Killers” are so obese the only things they’re endangering are their own batteries.

If it’s inevitable that iPods will get even thinner, then Apple’s even more ballsy by taking it to the “nano” level so soon. Surely there were other levels of littleness that Apple could have drawn from for names before getting so tiny so soon.
Nanotechnology is the branch of engineering that deals with things smaller than 100 nanometres – at a molecular level. Granted, the iPod nano is thin – at first sight breath-takingly so. But a nanometre is one billionth of a metre. The iPod nano is 6,900,000 nanometres wide. I may be splitting hairs, but Apple’s pretending to split atoms. (In order to write a future column about the pains of being sued by Apple, I’ve already registered the domain name.)

Nano is undeniably a better name than mini, as Apple’s principal digital-music rival Creative Labs knows only too well. It already has a player called the Zen Nano. I presume that Apple checked out its trademark responsibilities, because if Creative’s Nano had followed Apple’s you can be sure its lawyers would have hit Creative fast and hard.

At 13,000,000 nanometres, Creative’s Nano is twice as fat as the new iPod, and has a shuffle-like maximum capacity of just 1GB. What the Zen Nano does boast is a factor that many have described as one of the major reasons for the now-defunct iPod mini’s raging success (especially with women): a choice of colours. The mini was available in four colours; the Zen Nano, ten; the iPod nano, black and white. While Apple’s stark colour range is all very minimalist, there’s a lot of people out there who are so uncool they actually prefer bright colours.

Even if you’re not interested in iPods or require more than 4GB, the switch from mini to nano is a significant pointer to technologies that will soon transform our computers.

Apart from the colours, another reason the mini was so popular (despite its higher cost per megabyte) was its, well, mininess compared to the iPod. But such a compact form came at the expense of capacity. The iPod nano ditches the hard-disk drive altogether in favour of flash memory – like that used by digital cameras – that currently maxes out at 4GB. Compared to hard disks, flash memory severely restricts capacity. That’s why some cameras support the same 1-inch disks as the mini – indeed, people used to strip the disks out of the iPod to fit in a camera. But sticking a whirring disk drive in the hot, enclosed space of a camera body isn’t clever.

Solid-state flash memory, on the other hand, has many advantages over disk-drive storage: it consumes less power, it has higher resistance to shock, it’s more reliable because there are no moving parts, it can read and write data faster, and it’s silent in operation.

Unfortunately it’s much more expensive. To keep nano prices down Apple has simply ensured massive volume price reductions by ordering everything it can get its hands on. Reports hint that Apple struck a deal with Samsung (the world’s number-one producer of flash chips with revenue more than double that of second-ranked Intel, another new Apple ally) in which it promised to purchase as much as 40 per cent of Samsung’s flash-memory output in exchange for a big volume price reduction. Analysts speculate that discount to be as much as 50 per cent, which would bring Apple’s per-gigabyte cost for flash memory in line with that of the iPod mini’s hard disk-based storage.

“I can’t tell you the discount,” said Samsung’s wonderfully named Joo Woo-sik, “but it stands to reason that we expand the range of discount rates for a big buyer like Apple.”

Apple CEO Steve Jobs claims that “entire factories were created to make this device,” revealing that Apple is now the world’s largest flash-memory customer. Imagine the possibilities of solid-state storage in an Apple laptop. Samsung made its first step towards this goal with the announcement of a prototype 16GB solid-state disk (SSD) based on flash chips – and 100GB capacities in “a couple of years”. Samsung is betting that price difference will erode if double-digit percentage price drops in the flash-memory market continue and so the market for flash-based storage broadens.
Take a look inside Motorola’s new iTunes-compatible ROKR mobile phone and you’ll find a Sandisk Transflash 512MB card – which is about the size of a fingernail (a little finger’s nail). SanDisk expects to have 1GB MicroSD cards available in limited quantities by the fourth quarter of this year, and 2GB versions in 2006.

The iPod nano marks the first stage of the demise of the hard disk, and points to some revolutionary advances in portable computing. The Wall Street Journal’s influential personal-tech columnist Walter Mossberg calls the nano “the best combination of beauty and functionality” he’s ever tested.

If Apple sticks close to these traditional design tenets and creates another wonder laptop, Dell and Sony will once again be playing portable catch-up. As they’ve failed to match Apple in the music-player design stakes, can they better an Intel-processor and large-capacity SSD-storage PowerBook? Fat chance.