In his Macworld Expo keynote address, Steve Jobs announced the long-rumored newest member of the iPod family: a flash memory-based version of the iPod called the iPod shuffle.
Flash memory is analogous to RAM; the advantage is that there are no moving parts, unlike a regular iPod that contains a hard drive and is subject to skipping if shaken (and to expensive damage if dropped), making the regular iPod a poor candidate for jogging and other vigorous exercise. The disadvantage of flash memory has traditionally been the cost, but Apple has chosen an impressive and surprising strategy of undercutting the competition on price: a 512 MB model is just $100, and a 1 GB model is just $150.
Physically, the iPod shuffle (the small initial letter in "shuffle" is deliberate; perhaps it's an attempt on Apple's part to make reportage less legible) looks like a white cigarette lighter: it's a little over three inches long and one inch wide (76 mm by 25 mm), and weighs less than one ounce (28 g). It has a headphone jack at one end and a USB connector at the other (covered by a cap), so although it can be used with a dock (available as a $30 accessory), it can itself be plugged directly into your Mac (or your PC if you swing that way). It sports a version of the typical circular iPod Click Wheel controller (without the scrolling wheel technology), but, in a strikingly original move designed to cut costs, it has no display: instead, an LED indicates status. There is also a battery indicator light to show the level of the rechargeable battery; the battery, said to play for 12 hours (though we shall have to see how long it lasts in practice) charges directly from the USB port of your computer, and Apple also sells a $30 power adapter that allows you plug it directly into the wall instead. A full charge is said to require about four hours, with two hours enough to get you to 80 percent capacity.
As one would expect from a member of the iPod family, the iPod shuffle can play music in MP3, AAC, and Audible formats. It apparently cannot play Apple Lossless files, but curiously it can play WAVs, which are completely uncompressed. You can, of course, drag individual songs from iTunes into your iPod shuffle, or purchase an album at the iTunes Store and download it directly into your iPod shuffle; but Apple is also touting the new Autofill feature, which lets iTunes create and upload a random playlist for you, either from specific iTunes playlists or from your entire library. On the iPod shuffle itself, a large slider lets you toggle between playing your tunes sequentially or in random order; the invitation to live dangerously by listening to unknown music in an unknown order is a major element of Apple's explicit consumer message. (Apple must imagine its customers have a peculiarly low danger threshold.) The iPod shuffle can also accept data files, so it doubles as a USB "keychain drive"; a setting in iTunes lets you dictate how much of the drive's space is allocated for music and data. Many people at the show commented that the USB drive capability of the iPod shuffle made it an easy purchasing decision, given that a 512 MB USB drive by itself costs about $50.
Other accessories are advertised at Apple's site, including an armband - the default body attachment is a rather dorky-looking lanyard that hangs the iPod around your neck like the Ancient Mariner's albatross - a protective sport case that will also prevent thieves from snatching your iPod shuffle from the lanyard, and an external battery pack for two AAA batteries, adding an extra 20 hours of playing time. Most of the accessories are slated for arrival at the Apple Store in the coming weeks, but the iPod shuffle is available right now, with estimated shipping times of 1 to 2 weeks.