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 The very purpose of iPod for the mass market is obsolete.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.

What is innovation, really?

innovate [verb]

make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

In today’s fast-paced world, the question of innovation arises frequently whenever a tech company releases a new product. It’s discussed more often when that tech company is none other than Apple, once considered the “most innovative company” under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

When Apple announced the iPhone 5s, the argument for their lack of innovation and simply just releasing iterative products was at its strongest. The parallel was drawn between 1 Infinite Loop and their fiercest new competitor, Samsung. In the case of Samsung, it’s argued that their products seem more innovative because of all the new features packed into their latest devices. In other words, more is better – not an altogether incorrect assumption, but in terms of innovation… that remains to be understood.

This reasoning has got me thinking about what we consider “innovation” to mean in a world saturated by new products, a world where discourse is accelerated by the power of the World Wide Web, a world where the exponential increase in technology drives economies and mass-desire for the next big thing.

When Steve Jobs shepherded Apple out of their dark ages with the colourful iMac, he was regarded amongst the great businessmen and inventors of recent history – Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Henry Ford. That original iMac brought something truly unexpected to the computing world: fun. It brought computers to life; its bold design decisions – made by the formidable designer Jony Ive – diverged from the existing conceptions of what computer design constituted. It was innovative in the field of industrial design by its very nature of being different, of being bold and new.

When John F. Kennedy chose to “go to the moon […] and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” thousands of NASA engineers embarked upon one of the most daring projects ever – to design a spacecraft that could safely land man on the moon, and fulfil our unending quest to explore, to go beyond, to seek new frontiers. They innovated in the field of science, discovering countless new things that have spilled-over into general use.

Nikola Tesla is perhaps history’s unluckiest innovator – under the shadow of Edison, his inventions went largely unseen or appreciated. For example, he’s the father of radio, yet many consider Guglielmo Marconi to be the actual inventor.

“I don’t care that they stole my idea . . I care that they don’t have any of their own.”
― Nikola Tesla

Yet Tesla persevered, because he was so invested in his ideas, so driven by his passion to create and discover and test new ideas, rather than be forced to succumb to the whim of the general public and abandon his work.

His name has inspired Elon Musk’s innovative attempts, namely Tesla Motors. His work there is changing the way we understand something intrinsic to modern living: the car. Musk is daring to make the electric motor car a viable and stylish alternative to the environmentally damaging internal-combustion engine vehicle. Musk isn’t worried about social convention; he’s going against it to create something new, something daring.

I could list a hundred more examples of innovators daring to change the world with significantly new ways of thinking, but I think you get the point: to innovate means to diverge from what is the established path, it’s to explore, to test, to try new things and go beyond what everyone else feels is the convention. And in doing so, it results in the creation of something meaningful. This doesn’t mean piling more features onto an existing product – that is actually iterative design, not innovative design.

The word “innovation” has become saturated over the years with our misconception of it meaning “more features.” It’s driven by our desire to want more, because more is supposedly better. It’s a mass-consumerist ideology that has permeated today’s societies. The true nature of innovation has been lost. It’s lucky that we have people like Elon Musk who still believe in its original intention.

Instead of focussing on wanting more, we should become more discerning about what it is we desire. Are more features packed into a product – many of which you probably won’t want to use more than once – really what you want? Or is it the attention to every facet of a product’s design, every little detail, whilst adding just those features that will add value and meaning to your interaction with the product, a more compelling alternative?

This is indeed a compelling age to be living in, as the very idea of what it means to innovate is being challenged by both bold ideas and new steps forward, and the marketing-driven feature-piling approach of many tech companies. Perhaps there will never be a final definition, as our desire to explore and create will constantly force this notion in new directions.

iPhone 5C: Apple’s Second Renaissance

We all knew there would be an iPhone 5C. If the copious amounts of part leaks and even full design photos weren’t enough confirmation, then at least the fact that Apple’s significant challenge in facing-off the onslaught of cheaper, plastic Android models was a defining factor in creating just such a product.

iPhone 5C (or is it spelt “iPhone 5c…?) is, in my opinion, a refreshing take on the mobile phone design that defined this generation’s idea of what a phone should be. It’s fun, vibrant and clearly aimed at a more youthful audience – factors that make it perfectly positioned to attack the Android and Windows Phone (in the guise of the Nokia Lumia range) charge. Its price point still leaves much to be desired – at one point, $199 to be exact – it overlaps with the low-end iPhone 5s model. This ambiguity, and the fact that it actually costs $549 unlocked, means that Apple’s lower-cost phone isn’t actually that cheaper, but it’s certainly the more economical option for those wanting an iPhone but not willing to shell out for the more premium incarnation.

The Apple Renaissance

imac5

One of the turning points in Apple’s history was Steve Jobs’s return, and the creation of the plastic iMac, designed by famed Apple designer Jony Ive.

This design breathed new life into the tired, beige-hued look of computing, and spawned many copies, even transcending the computing industry into other products like staplers and cooking utensils. It was iconic, and extremely successful. And it was made of plastic, a material that often takes a lot of flack for being perceived as “cheap” and environmentally un-friendly.

That early iMac design marked a renaissance for Apple that was closely followed by the iPod and iBook. But soon Apple began to produce its distinct minimalist designs, forgoing plastic for sleek aluminium and glass. Which I, along with many others, have loved ever since. It is classy, stylish and durable – far more so than plastic.

This design language has, however, become quite predictable. That is why I call the introduction of the iPhone 5c a second renaissance for the Cupertino giant. It adds a new take to the iPhone design, and alludes to that earlier time in Apple’s history when things were very uncertain (as they are right now, with the competition catching up and even surpassing them in many ways), and there was a definite need to shake things up. Then, and now, Apple chose to do this through the medium of design and not other strategies. Being a firm believer that through design they could build a rock-solid business strategy, Apple has hinged their hopes of regaining mobile dominance with this very product.

As a second renaissance, the iPhone 5c represents a completely new framework of thinking at Apple: one that began with the flatter design of iOS 7 and which continues with the reintroduction of steel-reenforced polycarbonate iPhones that are colourful and in stark contrast to the more elegant and subtle iPhone 5S. The 5c now panders to new audiences, tries to hold on to audiences that are growing up, and adds a sense of fun to the product line in the same way that the iPod mini reinvigorated its product family. Apple’s new design language is going to be interesting to follow as it slowly unfolds across both its software and hardware, under the watchful eye of Sir Jony Ive.

Just this week Apple moved ahead the process of getting the iPhone sold with China Mobile, the world’s largest phone carrier with over 700 million subscribers. And ardent followers of Apple news will know that the iPhone 5c has been in many ways designed to target such countries as China and India, the largest battlegrounds of Android dominance. If Apple can successfully infiltrate these fields with the iPhone 5c, then it will be proof indeed that mindful product design and meticulous attention and care to how a product is engineered and manufactured are indeed the ingredients to a winning product.