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by Michael Shapiro | September 3, 2010

Apple threw another one of its trademark product-announcement bashes this week in San Francisco, a mostly music-product event that included a mini-concert with Chris Martin, who dutifully sang the hits of Coldplay and the praises of Apple. (And what planner or marketing rep doesn't marvel at Apple's ability to drum up so much excitement and media coverage over new product announcements?) There were no phones or iPads announced, but one mobile device did get a significant upgrade, one that could have some effect on traveling and meeting.
 
The next generation of the iPod touch, which Apple claims will begin shipping next week, marks another leap forward in the convergence of mobile devices that aren't actually phones -- well, not quite phones, anyway. I use my current iPod touch as a phone where there's a Wi-Fi signal, and the new models make that arrangement just a little bit easier. Specifically, they will sport microphones (while current models require that you plug in a headset with a mic), and they will have front-facing cameras, allowing for video chats. This kind of device makes a lot of sense for international travelers or anyone who doesn't want to be tethered to a two-year AT&T contract, which is of course still required in the U.S. for the iPhone (legally, anyway).
 
Currently, free downloadable apps, such as those from Vonage and Skype, allow you to make free or low-cost calls using VOIP where there's a Wi-Fi signal present. The new iPod touch adds FaceTime to that mix, Apple's free video chat program. Of course, you'll be able to use FaceTime only with other iPod touch or iPhone 4 owners, but it's a start. This also raises the question about whether Apple will begin to loosen some of its VOIP restrictions on apps, which are mired in the politics of Apple's AT&T relationship. Will VOIP calling become increasingly more practical on the iPod, and will we see video-chat functionality from iPod-compatible apps like Skype as well? 
 
With the release of the new iPod touch, Apple will also be releasing the next free upgrade (4.1) to its iOS, the iPhone and touch operating system. The following free upgrade, version 4.2, will be out in November — and that one will bring all of the latest functionality to the iPad. I suspect that means we could see the next-generation iPads announced in time for holiday shopping, and that they too will be equipped with cameras, further increasing the video-chat capabilities of all of Apple's mobile devices.
 
One of the most relevant points for meetings and events is the fact that Apple is adding this kind of functionality to more devices that share a common platform, the iOS. Any mobile strategy these days has to take into account the disparity among mobile gadgets and their different platforms; if you create an iPhone app for your event, you'll reach some attendees, but to reach more you may also need web-based apps and/or those for the BlackBerry and Android platforms. The fact that Apple is putting different kinds of devices in the hands of more people should, if successful, increase the reach of anything you develop for Apple's operating system.
 
As a traveler and admirer of gadgetry, I appreciate that the new iPod touch also has a rear-facing camera, capable of shooting high-def video at 30 frames per second, which you can then edit right on the iPod. And with version 4.1 of the iOS, Apple also is introducing a high dynamic range photo feature. For any still photos taken with the new iPod touch, or with the iPhone (or, eventually, with an iPad), you can flip on this HDR setting and the device will shoot three photos simultaneously -- one at the automatic exposure, one slightly underexposed and one slightly overexposed -- and then combine them, bringing out details in both the shadows and the highlights. Features like these can potentially make these devices even more useful while on the road.

That said, the new iPod touch's still photo capabilities equate to less than a megapixel of resolution -- as opposed to the newest iPhone's 5-megapixel still camera. So your degree of usefulness will vary. Full details on this and Apple's other new product announcements are available on the company's home page