Today, Apple Computer launched its fourth-generation iPod, a much-improved portable digital audio player that finally adds much-needed functionality to a product that was already destroying the competition. But "Newsweek" mistakenly revealed the existence of Apple's new iPod (which had been covered in a veil of secrecy like all Apple products) 2 days early when the magazine posted its electronic version Saturday. Apple CEO Steve Jobs, holding a new iPod, graces the magazine's front cover.
  
The new iPod looks like the earlier generation but does away with the finicky capacitor-driven buttons that marred those units. Instead, the new iPod integrates the buttons directly into the scroll wheel, as the hard-to-find iPod Mini does. More important, perhaps, are the other improvements: The new unit gets 12 hours of battery life, up from 8 hours in the earlier models, although still well shy of the 22 to 24 hours that Dell and Creative portable audio players achieve. And Apple has made the iPod's already-simple UI even easier to use, with often-accessed items now available from the top menu. Combined with lower prices--a 20GB unit is $299 and the high-end 40GB unit is $399--the fourth-generation iPod should sell well.
  
Clearly a cultural icon today, the iPod got off to a modest start in late 2001, when Apple released the first version. Originally compatible only with the Macintosh, the first iPod offered the white design, scroll wheel, and Firewire connectivity that has graced all subsequent iPods. It also included a simplified version of the navigational software that hard-disk-based portable media player maker Creative pioneered for its Nomad line of devices.
  
But the iPod had a few improvements over Creative's earlier push into consumer electronics, which is what ultimately made the iPod such a milestone. First, the iPod was clearly an Apple product, with a beautiful design and an elegant interface. Second, its close integration with the excellent iTunes software made the unit far easier to use. And finally, its small size let it fit in a pocket, making it more portable than Creative's early efforts. Over time, as Apple unleashed the Apple iTunes Music Store and made the iPod compatible with Windows, the device's viability and desirability grew. And that success occurred despite relatively high prices, proving that-- sometimes, at least--cachet wins out over pragmatism.
  
In the wake of the Apple iTunes Music Store launch, iPod sales skyrocketed, and the device's white headphone cables are now the status symbol du jour in large cities and on college campuses. In the most recent quarter, Apple sold a whopping 860,000 iPods, and the company will soon be regularly selling more iPods than Macintosh computers. Had Apple been able to follow through on the planned widespread availability of the iPod Mini--a smaller, more colorful cousin to the iPod--overall iPod sales for the most recent quarter would have been even higher. Instead, the iPod Mini--a highly desirable product that has yet to ship in volume a full 7 months after Apple announced it--remains the one black mark on the iPod's short history. 
  
Apple appears to have learned its lesson from the iPod Mini, however. According to the Apple Store, the new iPods will ship to customers in just 1 to 2 days. So customers who are eager to get the new design won't have to wait. "There are lots of examples where not the best product wins," Jobs said. "Windows would be one of those, but there are examples where the best product wins. And the iPod is a great example of that."