The Final Conflict

Oh, boy. Another tremendous battle is brewing. It will be the mother of all battles - as well as the father, the son, and the daughter. More than likely, it will be the family pet of all battles, too. It's nothing less than warfare for world domination. Once and for all, it will settle the question: Who makes the coolest toys?

The iPod has changed history since October 2001, when it was launched with the lame slogan "Say Hello to iPod." Apple wasn't the first to sell a portable hard-disk music player - and actually, the company lucked into the product. An entrepreneur named Tony Fadell had the idea for a portable player fully integrated with a download service, but when his company failed to attract investors, he shopped around the notion to other manufacturers. They passed. So he asked Apple if it was interested. The resulting player was smaller, sleeker, and whiter than any other. Not to mention louder (Steve Jobs is partially deaf and reportedly kept asking the engineers to crank it up). And better. Today, Apple's victory is amazing: 80% of portables are iPods, and the iTunes Music Store has sold more than a billion tracks.

Apple continues to kick ass - and its competitors continue to whimper. Their players are pretty good, and usually much cheaper. But none has approached the cult status of the iPod. Apple still dominates the music download business, and the popularity of the iPod has radically empowered the company.

In much the same way that a banana-republic dictator bothers a superpower, Apple's iPod annoys Microsoft. The success of the iPod probably won't cause the world to abandon Windows, Office, and everything else Microsoft makes that breathes life into the modern world. But the music download business is joined at the hip with the computer business, and Microsoft needs to tap in. It's a matter of pride (and profit) for the company. So, tired of waiting for a hardware manu­facturer to meaningfully challenge Apple, Microsoft is developing its own portable player - which, most notably, will have Wi-Fi onboard. You'll be able to wirelessly download music and video from anywhere, without a computer. Microsoft will launch its attack before Christmas.

Apple, not resting on past glory, is working on future-generation iPods. Reportedly, a new edition will have Bluetooth onboard. You'll be able to listen via wireless headphones - or just toss the iPod into a Bluetooth-equipped car and play it through the sound system. A Wi-Fi 'Pod may also be coming. Apple patent filings reveal new user interfaces, too, including touchscreens that would make the famous click wheel obsolete.

Can Microsoft invade the iPod's territory? Will Apple lose the hearts and minds of consumers as they grow tired of current-generation iPods?