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The Future of the iPod

Today, it is time to look at the future of an iconic Apple product that has fallen out of the spotlight in recent times.

 

The iPod has cemented its place as one of the most important products in Apple’s history. I will admit I doubted that it would have much impact when it first came out in 2001. At the time, one had to transfer music from CDs to an iPod, although many more were downloading illegally despite the Napster rulings that were persistent throughout the media shortly before the iPod’s introduction. Additionally, MP3 players had never really taken off after their introduction in the late 1990s, with most everyone opting to stick with a CD player instead.

 

The turning point, at least from my observations, was the opening of the iTunes Music Store. Instead of spending $15 on a CD that would be unplanned save for the two tracks the listener actually wanted, it was now possible to spend $1.98 on just the desired two tracks. Music not carried by the big box stores was suddenly available at one’s fingertips. Perhaps most importantly, Apple pioneered in providing a legal, song-by-song (or album-by-album) way to purchase music online.

 

It was possible to burn these tracks to a CD, but the appeal of putting together playlists and taking them on the bus, to the gym, or to the office to play on a pair of PC speakers appealed to many. The purpose and use of an iPod was somewhat confusing prior to the introduction of the iTunes Store, especially since many were unclear about the terms Apple was using in its advertisements (such as “rip”). With the idea of purchasing music to load on the device suddenly in view, the public responded and started to snap up iPods.

 

Eventually, Apple began to expand and improve the iPod line. Click wheels were introduced and remain on non-Touch iPods to this day. Catchy television commercials featuring silhouettes jamming to the music on their iPods caught the attention of thousands. iPod capacities expanded and the smaller, less-expensive iPod mini was introduced. The mini line was eventually succeeded by the iPod nano and joined by the iPod Shuffle. iPods began shipping with color screens, gained the capability to play video, and even found themselves linked to Nike running shoes. The sky was the limit for a product once thought by some (myself included) to wind up next to the Newton and Macintosh TV in Apple history.

 

The iPod went from being an item for technophiles and those with huge music collections to a product for the masses. Teenagers and college students, typically the trend-setters in society, were joined by their younger siblings, parents, and even grandparents in joining the iPod craze. Everyone fell in love with the little music player, and some discovered the beauty of Apple’s Macintosh line as a result of their trip to the Apple store. Apple was benefiting from the sales and also from the attention the iPod received as a staple in pop culture. Essentially, it became the Sony Walkman for a new generation.

 

The iPod Touch represented the next step in iPod evolution. Basically an iPhone without the phone part, it has become more popular for running apps and browsing the web than for listening to music or watching videos. Along with its iPad and iPhone cousins, it has received most of the attention over the past three years.

 

Traditional iPod sales have declined, due in no large part to both the availability of Apple’s mobile devices (all of which are capable of playing music) as well as the fact that many folks already purchased iPods and have no reason to upgrade, especially as new features on traditional iPods have decreased in recent years.

 

Apple currently has four iPod lines (not including the iPad and iPhone). Major updates have not been seen in some time, and Apple should, sooner or later, do something to the existing offerings to make them more marketable in a market hampered by a suffering economy (which prevents some from buying “luxury” items such as iPods) and the iPod/iPhone craze. While iPods will probably never be the “hot” item they were last decade, they should continue to provide Apple with revenue for years to come as long as the company handles the product with care.

 

The newest iPod, the iPod Touch, has a bright future. With a base price of $200, it represents Apple’s entry-level computer–not quite a netbook or tablet computer, but one capable of surfing the web, composing e-mails, and running the latest apps. It also functions as a traditional iPod, of course, by being able to play music. The iPod Touch may not gain a version of iWork given its size, but may receive some hardware upgrades, such as larger capacities and perhaps even a camera or FM tuner (both found on the less-expensive iPod nano). Due to its nature as an app-running “sub-netbook”, it should remain relatively unchanged for a while and will continue to be a key component of Apple’s future in its various roles–high-end iPod, phoneless iPhone, and “iPad nano”. Expect the pricing strategy to stay the same, with the entry-level model lacking some features but being available for less. Prices in general should either fall slightly or stay about the same as the features and capacity increase.

 

The iPod nano also appears to be safe. Available in nine colors and two capacities, it is less expensive than the iPod Touch and has several niches in the market. It serves as an inexpensive solution for playing music and video, is a good solution for those who don’t want to take their more expensive iPod Touch, iPad, or iPhone to the gym, and is a favorite of the younger crowd due to its vibrant case colors, video camera, and low price. Apple may eventually bring some sort of touch screen to the nano and could even replace the body of the iPod with a screen, although a more likely scenario is a touch-sensitive click wheel substitute similar in nature to the Magic Mouse. However, the feature set will probably stay the same to keep prices low. Capacities may not increase much, although if they do, the current 8GB model could potentially drop to $100, offering an even more economical “bare bones” music player that could reach those who are on strict budgets, including first-time buyers who may have avoided iPods due to their prices. It is doubtful any nano will ever top $200 unless serious inflation takes place. Provided Apple can keep the nano current, it should be around for years to come.

 

Less certain are the futures of the iPod Shuffle and iPod Classic. Despite its $60 base price, the Shuffle isn’t exactly the most popular product in Apple’s lineup. Its low capacity and lack of visible song selection are the two biggest drawbacks. While I don’t see a screen coming to the Shuffle anytime soon, I do see a consolidation of models in the future. The 4GB model will probably become the only Shuffle, may drop in price, and could be available in only one or two colors instead of six (counting the stainless steel offering currently on Apple’s website). This item is viewed as a frivolity by many, especially when the iPod nano isn’t a whole lot more expensive and delivers many more features. While fitness enthusiasts appear to be the target market of the Shuffle, it does not offer integration of any sort with Nike shoes.

 

Apple could take advantage of the Shuffle’s fitness-oriented market by building in Nike support and perhaps a new feature–a pedometer. This would require a small screen similar to that of most digital pedometers and would certainly raise the price, but would make this model more appealing than in its current form. The screen could double as a way to share information about what is playing or could be used as either a clock or stopwatch. Making the case and earbuds water resistant (and able to be mounted on a pair of specially-designed goggles) could open the door to those who like to swim but would like to listen to music instead of the loud teenagers present at most community pools. This sort of model would probably cost about $100, perhaps a bit more, but would be a welcome new addition to the lineup. However, the ball is in Apple’s court, and if they choose not to do much with the Shuffle, its sales will probably will not increase and could potentially decrease, especially if the iPod nano is reduced in size. (I will admit right now–I do not know of anyone with an iPod nano, not even from the gym).

 

While the iPod Shuffle could potentially have a bright future, the same cannot be said of the iPod Classic. From the outside, it basically looks like a heavily updated version of the click wheel iPod first seen in 2004. On the inside, it has the highest capacity of any iPod at 160GB. Apple mentions “capacity” as the most important feature of the Classic on its website, and this may just so happen to be its only selling point. It does boast a long battery life and vibrant screen, but actually has less features than the iPod nano (no camera or FM tuner). Those with tons of songs or video may consider it, but it is far better to simply store video on a computer’s hard drive when not being used and enjoy the bigger screen of the lower-capacity iPod Touch or iPad for playback (or, if a larger screen is desired, a MacBook of some sort). The thought of anyone having 40,000 songs or 200 hours of video in of itself is paralyzing to most–after all, this would amount to about a year’s pay for many people if purchased on the iTunes store, and those with enough cash to burn would certainly spring for something higher on the totem pole than an iPod Classic. In other words, aside from its high capacity, which may eventually be matched by the iPod Touch, there is nothing going for the hard drive-based iPod Classic these days.

 

The iPod Classic can be traced back to the original iPod, much like the Macintosh Classic II could be traced back to the original Macintosh in terms of form factor. However, all good things come to an end eventually. The original black and white Macintoshes lasted for over nine years (January 1984-September 1993) and increased in features, power, and expansion over the years before being supplanted by the color all-in-ones and the lower-priced modular Macs, both of which offered far more features for similar prices and were introduced before the discontinuation of the final compact model, the Classic II. More recently, the G3-based iMac had a run of nearly five years (August 1998-March 2003) and also saw an increase in features, power, and expansion over its lifetime. It too was supplanted by the similarly-priced and better-featured eMac and iMac G4 lines, which were sold alongside the iMac G3 for a brief time. In both cases, the most powerful model of each line (the Macintosh SE/30 in the compact series and the 700MHz iMac) had already been discontinued when the lines were discontinued, and both series had been seriously pared down near the end of their lives.

 

Looking at the iPod Classic, the writing is on the wall. The iPod Touch, superior in every aspect except capacity, has been on the market for three years now and has been able to gain a customer base. Some of the buyers may have previously considered an iPod Classic given their budgets, but went with the iPod Touch due to its expanded feature set. Those who don’t need the capacity and wanted to spend less continue to go with the nano, as has been the case since the nano’s predecessor, the iPod mini, was introduced. Only one capacity, the 160MB model, remains in the iPod Classic line, and its sales appear to be slow. I know of exactly one person who has purchased an iPod Classic in the past two years. Most have gone for the budget-oriented nano or the iPod Touch, which is to the iPod Classic what the iMac G4 was to the iMac G3.

 

The discontinuation date of the Classic has yet to be revealed, although I do predict it will come soon. Just as it was tough to watch the iMac G3, black and white compact line, and PowerBook 100 series (1991-1996) end their runs after bringing great success to Apple, it will be hard to watch the original iPod line fade into the history books. Many of us remember our early iPods fondly, and there are still plenty of oldies out there in use (including my old fourth generation iPod, which still works great today on its original battery). However, the time has come and gone for the product, as a newer and more feature-laden alternative has replaced it.

 

No matter when or if the iPod Classic is discontinued, it will leave behind a legacy much like the iMac G3 did. The hot selling pop culture icon of ten years ago helped to get Apple back on its feet. Once on its feet, the iPod helped Apple to gain a considerable presence outside of the traditional computer world, which set the company up for the success it is having today by building brand recognition and reputation. Its successors and siblings will continue in its footsteps, much like the models that followed other legendary lines did and have continued to do. Only Apple enthusiasts will notice the death of the first line of iPod, as many probably believe it was discontinued long ago (not many were aware of the continued availability Classic II, iMac G3, or the Apple IIe–which was, believe it or not, around until November 1993–during the final months of their runs).

 

To recap, I predict the following for the iPod line between now and December 2011:

 

iPod Touch: More features (notably a camera), larger capacities, possibly lower prices

iPod nano: Non-mechanical touch wheel (similar to Magic Mouse), possibly lower prices

iPod Shuffle: Consolidation of line, hopefully more features (especially those geared towards fitness enthusiasts)

iPod Classic: Discontinued, line retired with little fanfare but remembered in history as one of Apple’s biggest successes ever and one of the reasons why the company is in the position it is today.

 

This would not be complete without one more prediction–when will the Beatles come to iTunes? Despite being a Beatles fan, I am going to say that it may never happen. The dispute between the Beatles and Apple, which goes back to the Apple II days, has not been pretty, and the talks have stalled despite consistent rumors of the catalog coming to iTunes for years. Stick with the re-released albums that came out last year if you’re into the Beatles, since Apple is more likely to re-release the Color Classic than reach an agreement with the Fab Four.


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