Apple’s iconic portable music player is no more and Ed Selley feels we owe it a debt of gratitude
Gone - not with a bang but a whimper.
In the standard fanfare that marks the new iPhone 6 and indeed Apple’s first foray into wearable tech, one story passed with rather less noise. Indeed, amongst big screens and Apple Pay there was no formal announcement at all that the iPod- the device that set this whole process rolling in the first place- was no more. Instead, the ‘Classic’ (as it has been termed in recent years) has simply disappeared from the Apple Store website.
Viewed dispassionately, this is not a great surprise. The iPod was last revised in 2009 and this extended only to fitting a larger drive to the Sixth generation model that was unveiled by Steve Jobs himself in 2007. Development of the iPod had effectively finished half way through its life and this is not really how Apple rolls. In a world of touchscreens, solid state drives and software that seamlessly mirrors your content across multiple devices, the iPod seems almost old fashioned.
At the same time, it is impossible to overstate just how incredibly important the iPod has been to Apple, to our industry and in a wider social context. As discussions and coverage of all that is new in the world of Apple is proceeding nicely, I thought it only fair to take a moment or two to remember the genesis point of these latest devices.
It seems incredible to relate that when the iPod was launched, Apple was still looking rather vulnerable. The first generation iPod is closer chronologically to devices like the Newton and Pippin than it is to the all-conquering products of 2014. The original iMac can probably claim the most credit for pulling Apple back from the abyss but the iPod - another piece of Jonathan Ive design - played no small part in rescuing the company’s fortunes.
It is of course obligatory to point out - lest it be pointed out at length and with much anger in the comments - that there has never been anything innately revolutionary about the physical design of the iPod. Indeed, if you get a chance to handle a first gen iPod - and they were rare beasts at the time let alone thirteen years later - it seems almost laughably crude. Design aspects we associate with it like the clickwheel and dock connector are either only partially present (the wheel physically rotates and is not used for any actual selection process) or missing altogether (the connection is entirely via firewire). Every part of the design of the iPod technically first saw the light of day somewhere else and the slickness and integration that made the iPod so successful really only appeared in a truly recognisable form from the third generation onwards - although even this doesn’t have a fully evolved clickwheel.
It is impossible to overstate just how incredibly important the iPod has been to Apple, to our industry and in a wider social contextWhat the iPod did from the outset though was to make processes that were still in their infancy more accessible and much more stable than most of the competition could manage. I have never been a fan of iTunes, in fact I would go so far as to have a vigorous dislike of it, but it managed to make management of material on a player an intuitive and realistic proposition for people who weren’t innately familiar with the process before.
When you added in the ability to buy music directly via the same software and the financially brilliant but artistically terrible option to buy single tracks at a superficially reasonable price (a move that gravely affected the album as a musical concept), you had a concept that bludgeoned rivals at two levels. The iPod felt like a higher quality product and it walked you through processes that the competition left you at the not so tender mercies of Microsoft to achieve. Where the iPod then went a stage further was to become a cultural phenomenon.
The Hoover Moment
There is no clear process for making a product transcend technical competence and slick marketing and become a piece of popular culture - if there was, marketing managers would likely engrave it on granite tablets for eternity - but by the launch of the 4th generation in July 2004, the very term ‘iPod’ was starting to take on the same connotations as ‘Walkman’, ‘Hoover’ and (occurring at much the same time) ‘Google.’ Apple had achieved a position of dominance in the specific field that the iPod competed in - the iPod had pretty much dismantled the large capacity digital audio player market at this point - but culturally, the iPod was having a larger impact. All of a sudden, iPods were popping up literally everywhere from episodes of the Simpsons to high end car crime.
Part of this was self-fulfilling. The iPod was the most numerous selling digital audio player - even before the other variants, Mini, Nano, Shuffle etc, went on sale. As more enterprising companies took advantage of the docking protocol (perhaps a rare example of genuine innovation in the iPod program) to build iPod functionality into their products because it was the market leader, so people began to buy the iPod precisely because other devices worked so well with it.
The iPod accessories market became a huge part of the wider audio industry and ranged from $10 speakers to the eye wateringly expensive MSB iLink dock that required a specially modified iPod to work and which looked a little pointless after the pin out protocol was changed a year later allowing all iPods from then on to send a digital signal with no modification. For me, perhaps the moment it was clear that Apple had ‘won’ this particular battle was when Sony, the inventor of the Walkman, released an iPod dock.
Indeed, the effect on the iPod on the audio industry is hard to overstate. It took a long time (too long for there to ever be an effective competitor) for many companies to realise that simply building a more technically accomplished product was not enough to compete with something that worked so well on an aesthetic and integration level as well as audio performance (although to be clear, every single generation of iPod could stand its ground against the competition of the time once the earphones were junked).
The effect that all Apple products have had on what we expect from menus, interfaces and controls has been long lasting and universally positive. It also marked the start of the move away from CD - why reach for your CDs when you could plonk your iPod in a dock and use it as a compact music server? The increasing familiarity with iTunes also meant that many people moved from there to computer and streamed audio with a confidence that has greatly helped the uptake of these categories. The iPod was a set of training wheels for the present world of audio and a huge reason for why it has turned out the way it has for both and good and bad reasons.
Culturally, the iPod managed to be cool for a very long time despite being ubiquitous. The white earphones - an item that are placed very firmly in the worst earphones of all time - were a calling card that you were part of the family (at least for those of us who didn’t immediately junk them). The simplicity of the design and quality of materials used managed to elevate it above a consumer durable and is a lesson that Apple has rarely forgotten (and when it does with products like the iPhone 5C and Apple TV, I don’t think it is a coincidence that these products have been seen to be less successful than their Apple stablemates).
By the time that the 6th and final generation arrived (which was actually the only iPod I personally ever owned), the larger display and features like Cover Flow - hopelessly old hat now but seriously cool in 2007 - made for a user experience that was honed to perfection and effortlessly classy. I would argue that even now the Classic is dead, there are few more satisfying ways of browsing a large library of music than the clickwheel/Cover Flow combo.
It was also perhaps the nearest thing Apple has made to a classless product. With only gradual evolution and limited colour finishes iPods were largely free of must have models and sudden obsolescence. There were limited editions - including two U2 themed models showing that this month’s cultural bludgeoning courtesy of Bono is not a new phenomenon - but for the most part Apple avoided their usual approach.
There were no ‘must have it in gold’ moments or ‘this changes everything’ statements though. White gave way to silver as part of wider company policy and black appeared but that was as far as it went really - the iPod was the iPod was the iPod. Some were filled with 64kbps MP3s of cheesy pop while others were the preserve of rare jazz in ALAC but they all looked the same on the outside.
This cultural ubiquity is not going to go away quickly even though the device that created it is no more. The simplified iPod silhouette is a go to symbol for portable audio and is recognised by a worryingly huge chunk of the world’s population. The thirty pin dock connector still adorns millions of products around the world and iPods themselves have proved to be very resilient pieces of equipment. The iPod name itself lives on in the three iPod descendants and may yet find itself attached to other products. The Classic leaves a huge legacy behind.
Leave behind it does however. The reasons behind the end of the iPod are clear enough and I am not so reactionary as to not appreciate then. The functionality it offers has been effortlessly absorbed by the iPhone and there is little argument that the games on the iPod Touch are more absorbing than the tiny version of Solitaire you could play on more recent versions of the Classic. If you watch films and TV, there is little argument that the iPod Touch presents a more compelling experience than the Classic does.
At the same time, there are some parts of the hole that the Classic leaves that are more problematic on both a material and industry level. No other device in the Apple portfolio can match the capacity of the outgoing Classic and the 128gb iPhone variants are seriously pricey by comparison. The argument that cloud storage takes up the slack is only partially useful. The end of the Classic represents a wider sense that the dedicated audio player has become a minority pursuit and I find that sad - the enjoyment of music usurped by Angry Birds and the X-Factor.
The iPod was a set of training wheels for the present world of audio and a reason why it has turned out the way it has for both and good and bad reasonsThere is also a sense that the end of the Classic represents a waning of Apple’s influence on this particular category - a waning that began when there were no further updates after 2009. It would be foolish to suggest that iTunes is a spent force but nonetheless download revenues are down in the face of music on demand services - an area that Apple has not contested. The end of the Classic might - and I stand to be proved spectacularly wrong in this regard - be a watermark in Apple’s influence on audio. AirPlay is excellent but due to the higher costs involved has nothing like the penetration that the old dock connector once enjoyed and Bluetooth allows for the competition to come and play too. I don’t think we will see a product dominate a category in the same way for some time.
On a more immediate level, I think Apple has missed a bit of a trick in exploiting the end of one of their longest running products. I think there are enough sentimental types out there (and I count myself as one) that a Final Edition Classic (in the same vein as the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh) - perhaps in white again - would have done well. The importance of the iPod and the fondness many people have for it is something I suspect that a Jobs-era Apple would have effortlessly exploited instead of quietly issuing the death warrant to one of their most iconic products.
The cult of the white earphone
Naturally, my opinion is of absolutely no consequence and in a world of ‘smart’ watches, jumbo smartphones and a sense that every single portable device we have has to have an inordinate amount of feature overlap with all the other ones we have (and not being able to access social media on all of them is the new purgatory), a standalone audio player is something we no longer need. This doesn’t stop me looking back with fondness on what was mine - and I suspect a great many others - first Apple product. The effect the iPod had in thirteen years is more profound than some companies will have in their entire history and we should express a small debt of thanks for it.
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