Apple Announces $99 Tiny Apple TV, 99¢ TV Show Rentals, iTunes Social Network Ping

The much anticipated September Apple event has come and gone, delivering highlights of the company’s retail efforts, information on iTunes 10, and a slew of Apple TV related news.  The biggest surprises?  Apple has launched a social network and it finally has a TV box that seems competitive and compelling. 

Starting the show, Apple made a big-deal at the start of the event about its new stores.  Among the high-profile places where Apple has planted its seed are Paris, France (housed in a restored building); Shanghai, China (featuring a 40-ft tall glass cylinder over the subterranean entrance, which Mr. Jobs calls a “landmark in glass engineering”); and London, England (a “fantastic” store at “the heart of Covent Garden”).

Mr. Jobs bragged of some big numbers — over 1 million visitors at the company’s stores daily; over 300 stores in 10 countries, total.  Apple puts on lessons for 80,000 customers a week, a key part of its attempt to convert people to lifetime Mac buyers.

After unveiling its new lineup — which featured some surprises (the tiny, attractive Shuffle, starting at $49 for 2GB), some disappointments (iPod Nano with iOS and multi-touch but no camera and a smaller screen), and some expected developments (iPhone 4-esque iPod Touch revision) — Apple turned to iTunes.

The new version of iTunes, iTunes 10 is full of surprises.  First it ditches the old hat logo for a new icon.  The biggest new feature is a brand new, integrated social network called Ping that looks an awful lot like Facebook and helps you network with others to discover music — and make friends.  Mr. Jobs describes, “It’s a social network for music. It’s like Facebook and Twitter meet iTunes. It’s all about music.”

You can “follow” friends in Ping, check out concerts, and post your thoughts.  Apple claims that the network will offer as much privacy as you want, with complete control over who can see/follow you.  Mr. Jobs describes, “You can get as private or as public as you want, and it’s super simple to set up.”

The new social network is also available via app on iOS devices.  The new version of iTunes will be available today.

Mr. Jobs showed off his own account checking out pictures from Jack Johnson and posting that he was going to a Tegan & Sara/Paramore concert on September 17 in San Jose, California.

Apple does not own the domain name — that distinction is held by a golf club company.  So don’t try to visit Apple’s new social network from your browser.

As Apple hinted at early in its presentation, it had some big TV developments in store.  Mr. Jobs showed off a slide with Apple TV (introduced in Sept. 2006) which reiterated past critical comments about the device’s track record, remarking, “Not a big hit… What have we learned?”

Apparently one thing they learned was that the current product was too big.  In its never ending quest for small, Apple has hacked the new Apple TV down to one quarter its old size — small enough to grab in your hand.  Its connectivity remains largely the same — optical audio, HDMI, USB, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and ethernet.

Apple has ditched the old silver case for a black enclosure.  It’s also added a new remote.  

So what’s there to watch on the sleek new Apple TV?  You can currently rent HD movies on the day of the DVD release for $4.99, unlike Netflix, which makes customers wait a certain number of days for new releases.  Apple, which has offered rentals since 2008, also revealed another compelling new offer — TV shows for a measly 99¢.  But apparently not everyone is onboard.  Mr. Jobs comments, “Remember, these are commercial free. Now this is a big step for some of the studios to make. So we have ABC and Fox. We think the rest of the studios will see the light.”

The new Apple TV rental service features a revamped UI for picking movies.  Its much more graphical and offers reviews from Rotten Tomatoes to help you pick the studs from the duds.

The box now can stream Netflix movies, too.  That’s somewhat ironic to say the least — Apple sells streaming video rentals, but in a bid to pick up sales, it’s letting its biggest rival Netflix on its set-top box.  Users also have access to content on YouTube, Flickr, and MobileMe.  And to top it off iPad users can push content from their Apple TV to their iPad using a technology call AirPlay.

But the biggest change isn’t the dramatically shrinking size, but the dramatically shrinking price.  Mr. Jobs cheers, “The price of Apple TV was $229… users said they’d like to see it more affordable. So we’re gonna lower the price, from $229… to just $99.”

The device is currently on pre-order from Apple, and can be found here.  It will ship in four weeks.

Will Apple’s new social network and cheaper, smaller set-top box steal the show?  Or will users tune them out?  And will Apple help “the other” TV studios “see the light”, as it puts it? That remains to be seen, but Apple clearly has clearly worked hard to try to guarantee their success.

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