Apple Computer is preparing a major announcement next week, dropping hints of something as critical to the company’s future as the release of the original iPod in 2001.

The company sent an invitation to reporters on Monday morning for a “special event” being held Sept. 7 in San Francisco.

“1,000 songs in your pocket changed everything,” the invitation reads, referring to the release of the first 5GB iPod nearly four years ago. “Here we go again.”

As with any planned announcement from Apple, details are scarce and rumors are running rampant. However, some potential clues have emerged.

Record company executives have said recently that Apple has been seeking licenses to distribute a wide variety of music videos through the iTunes music store, and that the computer company has told them of plans to unveil an iPod that plays video.

Research firm iSuppli recently reported that Samsung Electronics was dedicating a large amount–perhaps as much as 40 percent–of its flash memory production to Apple, leading to speculation that the Mac maker was preparing a larger-capacity version of its flash-based Shuffle player, or even switching its iPod Mini to a flash-based technology.

Apple sold 6.1 million iPods in its last fiscal quarter, and the company has ridden the demand for the music player to its strongest financial position in years.

Other Apple-linked products are also nearing market release. Motorola has said that a long-promised iTunes cell phone will ship before the end of September. And the latest version of iTunes, version 4.9, contains hidden references to mobile-phone features, adding to the expectation that an iTunes-compatible cell phone is coming soon.

The Federal Communications Commission has granted regulatory approval for Motorola to start selling one iTunes-capable phone, although it is not certain that handset will be the first model Motorola introduces.

Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg cautioned against expecting anything too far out of Apple’s existing product line, saying that a video iPod is unlikely. The iTunes-compatible phone is a likely candidate, he said, but added that the company could have surprises in store.

“When it comes to Apple announcements, expectations are often set unrealistically by Apple enthusiasts,” Gartenberg said. “But Apple has been known to pull rabbits out of the proverbial hat. It may be a new category of device altogether.”

By John Borland

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