Celestial Jukebox in the Sky: The Life and Death of iPod

My iPod Classic

The first Apple device I owned was an iPod. Specifically, the iPod with Video (fifth generation, 60GB). It’s dead now; its hard drive failed some years ago and prompted my “upgrade” to an iPod Classic. It’s the shiny evolution of the device that changed the trajectory of Apple’s fortunes. The quirky click-wheeled ‘pod launched the company on a hyperdrive trip of success that has eventually led to last month’s announcement of Apple Watch, the latest darling to enter a strong lineage of beautiful industrial design from this Cupertino behemoth.

iPod is effectively dead right now. Its death occurred on June 29, 2007 when Steve Jobs announced iPhone, a “revolutionary” device touted as a “wireless communicator, Internet device and windscreen iPod – all in one.” iPhone, and the modern smartphone revolution it inspired, led to smaller device storage capacities and thus the emergence of streaming: instead of keeping music onboard, music could be – had to be – streamed from this mystical thing called the cloud. No longer are we compelled to maintain ginormous music libraries on iTunes, no longer do we have to carry our entire collection in our pockets: now, we can have the entire world’s music library beamed to us wherever we are (provided there’s network). The future is here, folks. This is the stuff writ in science fiction lore for decades: life in the connected network.

But here’s the thing: iPod was personal. iPod reflected who you were – because music is intrinsically personal, emotional, something that appeals to us all on the most base level. iPod was a tiny mirror of your personality. But with this shift to the cloud, the rise of iPhone and streaming services like SoundCloud, Spotify, Rdio and iTunes Radio, maintaining large libraries is a chore. The very purpose of iPod for the mass market is obsolete. I guess all technology has a shelf life – a fairly short shelf life at that – and it’s impressive that the iPod Classic remained in Apple’s lineup for so long. Its last refresh was in 2009, a mere consolidation of storage capacity to 160GB (that’s the iteration of iPod that I still own).

When Tim Cook announced 1 Infinite Loop’s new creation, Apple quietly pulled the iPod Classic from its lineup. This is a logical move for the company; earlier this year Cook even said in a quarterly earnings call that the iPod business was declining rapidly. Hell, even their accessories category is doing better than the iPod business. And the shift to streaming has caught Apple fumbling to maintain their dominance in the music industry – an industry it helped reinvent over a decade ago with this very device. Apple’s acquisition of Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics is indicative of their yearning to pull themselves back into the game. iTunes sales are growing disproportionately to the sales of streaming subscriptions from rival services. The message from the consumer couldn’t be clearer: people don’t want to own music anymore. Small storage capacities on beloved smartphones – space that is hotly contested by a multitude of media, from apps to videos to music – justifies the raison d’être for streaming services. Streaming music means more space on devices for more apps. And add to that the notion that you can listen to a catalog far greater than the capacity of your device, and the idea of owning an iPod Classic seems unreasonable.

This shift is reminiscent of the music industry’s transition from vinyl to tapes, the Walkman to the Discman and CDs, to MP3s and the iPod. An industry susceptible to change, at the mercy of the never-ceasing flow of technological invention will always face the challenge of maintaining its emotional connection to the human spirit – emotion is at the core of music, after all. And emotion is what many designers of music services and technologies try to imbue in their creations, creations that by their very nature are ephemeral.

iPod changed the game. It reflected who you were through something intangible: music. It did the impossible. It created magic. In a way, devoid of myriad features, the infinite possibilities of a canvas-like multitouch interface and a massive app store – devoid even of any network connections – iPod was the most magical device Apple created. It forged invisible yet strong connections between people through music. And its death, its yielding to a far more exciting, intense era of technological possibility, signals also the death of this singularly beautiful experience: the idea of the focussed technological device, the product that does one thing, but does it insanely great.

So, where to now? What is to become of the iPod line with the death of its last great ancestor, its direct line to the original iPod? Apple still has one more event left for this year, its October event that was historically dubbed the “music event” – the one that was reserved for announcing new iPods and a new version of iTunes. In recent years that has been replaced with iterative updates to the Mac line, and new iPads. The only iPod getting any love is the Touch – and rightly so. It is the only iPod that bridges the origin line (iPod) with the newer kids on the block (iPhone and iPad) through iOS. I don’t think iPod as a brand is dead. A new iPod Classic with a solid-state drive and support for high-fidelity music files has been talked about a lot on Apple forums. But only by diehard audiophiles, because that is exactly to whom this kind of device would appeal. It’s a highly-focussed segment of a small marketshare, and hardly anything that a behemoth like Apple, already deep in existing and well-performing product lines and ventures into entirely new industries (high fashion with Apple Watch) would even bat an eye at. It is for this reason – a pragmatic one, coldly looking at the statistics of market share – that I think iPod Classic is dead; iPod nano, shuffle and touch will continue on to ride out the ever-diminishing sales of a brand that brought a struggling company back from near-extinction, as Apple focusses on pushing people onto iPhones and the iOS ecosystem.

Tony Fadell, “father of the iPod”, put it succinctly when he said in a recent interview with Fast.Co Design:

“It was inevitable something would take its place. You know, in 2003 or 2004, we started asking ourselves what would kill the iPod […] And even back then, at Apple, we knew it was streaming. We called it the ‘celestial jukebox in the sky.’ And we have that now: music in the cloud.”

Like many people, I love music. It’s an incredibly important part of my life. iPod was – no, is – still a fundamental part of my personal tech setup. I am sad to see the Classic go, and have (begrudgingly) come to accept that, logically, there cannot be another Classic; that’s not the direction that the world is moving in. But I hope that the experience, the magic that Apple created with iPod, remains coursing through its DNA as it shifts focus from a consumer electronics company into a lifestyle one.

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