The tech sector does love its hype. Every new product is revolutionary. All new apps are ground-breaking. Everything anyone ever launched is going to change the way we do X. Almost without exception, it isn’t, they aren’t and it doesn’t.
But the iPod in 2001 definitely qualified. That simple, clever marketing slogan – “a thousand songs in your pocket” – beautifully summarised something that really was revolutionary. For the first time ever, we could carry close to a hundred albums in a device that slipped into our pocket and could go everywhere with us. Most of us listened to a lot more music in a lot more places.
It also propelled Apple along a new path. It’s no exaggeration to say that without the iPod, there would likely never have been an iPhone. The iPod revolutionized music and also transformed Apple.
But there have been a couple of recent signs that Apple no longer views the iPod as an important product …
In Apple’s financial report for Q1 2015, Apple reported sales figures for iPhone, iPad, Mac, iTunes and even accessories – but iPod sales were nowhere to be seen. The last we heard of those was the previous quarter, when they were down 25.1% at just 2.62M.
And just last month, the iPod was demoted on Apple’s homepage. No longer does it have its own tab alongside Apple’s other products. It doesn’t even get a tab within Apple’s Music section – you have to scroll way down the page past Apple Music, Beats 1, Connect and iTunes before Apple admits that the iPod exists.
Go further back to January 2014, and even then Tim Cook briefly and almost dismissively described the iPod as “a declining business.”
So what does all this mean for the future of the iPod? Does it even have one? I can see three possible futures for the iPod line-up:
- Maintain it as a current product line, continuing to launch updated models
- Continue to sell existing models as a legacy product, but cease meaningful updates
- Pull the plug
The recent discovery of images found inside the iTunes 12.2 update seem to point to path 1: there appear to be new models on the way. But that may not be as meaningful as it seems …
Officially, the iPod Shuffle was last updated a couple of years ago – but that was nothing more than new color options. The device itself has been unchanged since 2010. I’d argue that this is already a legacy product, sitting quietly on a rocking chair on the porch until it finally dies.
It’s a similar story with the iPod Nano. Colors aside, it hasn’t been updated since 2012.
And as for the iPod Touch, that was nominally updated just over a year ago, in June 2014. But again, strip away the color changes, and set aside Apple bringing the 16GB model into line with its bigger brothers, and nothing has changed under the hood there either since 2012.
That’s been particularly frustrating for developers, who used to be able to run the latest iOS betas on a relatively inexpensive device while keeping their own phones on a stable release. But with an ancient A5 processor and a 4-inch screen, it’s now useless as a development platform.
So, three iPod models. None of them meaningfully updated in almost three years. The product line rendered invisible on Apple’s homepage. And Apple ceasing to report on sales numbers. It seems to me that we can pretty much eliminate option 1: continuing to maintain the iPod as a current product. We are already some way down the legacy product path.
The question then is how long Apple might allow the iPod to remain on sale as a legacy product? iPod fans might take heart from the iPod Classic. Apple last updated the device way back in 2008, but a small but loyal fan-base meant that Apple continued selling it right up until last year, when it was quietly dropped. Six years as a legacy product.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen here. The future of music is a streaming one. Only the iPod Touch can live in the brave new Apple Music world, and if Apple intended to update that, I think it would have done so by now. Update: And DRM restrictions mean you can’t make Apple Music available offline then transfer it to your iPod via iTunes.
So my view is that the entire iPod line is now living on borrowed time. Remember Apple’s ruthlessness when it comes to abandoning what it considers outdated technology – from the removal of optical drives from MacBooks in 2012 to the dropping of pre-USB-C ports in 2015. At some point, it’s going to finally pull the plug on the iPod, and I suspect that time is not more than a year or so away.
I’ll always have a great deal of affection for the iPod. But I think it’s coming soon to the end of its days.