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The iPod’s got its due. What’s next?

Since it was first introduced in 2001, iPod as a music player has evolved in terms of shape, size and in what it offers. With almost two years since the last update, what is the fate of this iconic device?

The beginning of the 21st century witnessed the introduction of the iconic iPod. The device would soon go on to become a cult phenomenon and a generation-defining marvel of sorts, only to be eventually wiped away in the face of ever-changing technology.

Introduced in the early 2000s, the iPod – at its core a music player – acted as a conduit for teenagers to become a part of the coveted Apple ecosystem. If you look at the year 2001 when the iPod was first launched, the internet was on the cusp of massive proliferation and an entire generation was just emerging out of the Walkman phase.

The size of the Apple device was compact enough to fit into jeans pockets and neither did the introductory price burn a hole in the same. There are over a dozen devices in the entire line-up, both existing and discontinued. From Nano to Touch, the iPod has come a long way.

With the Cupertino based company discontinuing the Nano and Shuffle variants in July this year, the challenge remains for the iPod Touch as it is currently the last warrior standing.

Here we delve into this iconic device that defined an entire generation.

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The iPod lineage

Beginning the streak, the iPod Classic was introduced in the year 2001, and Apple continued to introduce devices in the family each year, for the next 9 years. The latest update, if you want to call it that at all, came in 2015 with the iPod Touch 6th generation.

The iPod ecosystem is broadly divided into five segments – Classic, Nano, Shuffle, Mini and Touch. When the 1st Generation iPod Classic was introduced in 2001, it came with a scroll wheel and four buttons around it for smooth navigation. And there were a few more iconic devices in the iPod lineup.

The second-gen iPod Shuffle, introduced in 2006, was smaller than the size of a matchbox and came with a clip that you could put on your shirt. This was the most compact of all iPods and did not sport a screen.

The fifth-generation iPod Nano, introduced in 2009, came with a camera, unlike its predecessors. In 2005, iPod Nano replaced the iPod Mini, coming with the low-price tag.

Now the star player of the iPod line-up was the iPod Classic sixth generation which was introduced in 2007. With a storage space of 140 GB, the device could hold about 40,000 songs; it was also the last device to sport the click wheel.

If you were to determine the popularity of these variants by the number of models, iPod Nano and Classic remained the most popular categories. With over a dozen devices in the line-up, the iPod ecosystem was a niche in itself. The simple and minimal design of these devices particular of Apple made it easy for the iPod to hold a significant place in the market.

When Apple discontinued the much-loved iPod Classic in 2014, the further cut that came in July this year was inevitable – since, in a wireless age, the Nano and Shuffle remained the last two products that could not stream from Apple Music.

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The one that started it all

Why all the hype about the iPod anyway?

Developed to provide a better alternative to existing digital music players, the iPod was meant to simplify a user’s experience of listening to music. The storage capacity it offered was also unheard of during those days. Even with compressed music files freely available, being able to carry your entire music collection was quite a thing (back then 1000 songs was a full collection). The device was responsible for giving Apple the push it needed to make a comeback into the tech world. Though, if you contrast those early features with what’s available today, the absence of Wi-Fi or cloud connectivity make it sound almost archaic now.

The ‘Others’

When it comes to music players, the iPod remains a popular option because Apple has a loyal customer base for its products. On the other hand, as Nano and Shuffle are taken off the market, users still have cheaper MP3 player options.

For the brand-conscious, and those who think their phones aren’t enough, the Sony NW-E394 in its 8GB variant is a good example of a standalone music player. The variant comes at about $75, and you have the added advantage of a radio player which the iPod isn’t equipped with. There are other options which are capable of playing Hi-Res music as well. They feature high-end DAC chips and Op-Amps. Brands like FiiO and Astell & Kern are well known in this category.

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MP3 Players were pretty common at one point

An interesting fact which should be considered is that despite the crippling of the iPod, it has stayed around for good 16 years. The simplicity of the design, the ability to ‘own’ music and not just stream it, and other interesting aspects made it capable to stay around for a long time, even while smartphones were garnering all the popularity for themselves. Even though there were other MP3 music players in the market, the uniqueness of the product was enough for its success.

The future is tense

The last iPod Touch 6th Generation, which is also the latest, was launched in July 2015 – more than two years ago!

The discontinuation of the iPod Classic marked the beginning of the downfall of Apple’s music player category. Now with the Nano and Shuffle also meeting their end, Touch remains the flagbearer of the iPod category and is now available in 32GB and 128GB options.

While Apple may be overhauling its other product categories, it must also pep up the iPod soon unless it wants the category to eventually perish. Apple CEO Tim Cook termed iPod as a declining business and has also stated that products like the Apple Watch are being marketed as better alternatives.

The 2015 update of Touch had better technology and camera options. But if you were to look at the technological advancements in the last two years, the ‘latest’ iPod might have become obsolete by the time it gets another update, if at all.

The A8 processor, for instance, might have been the best a couple of years ago, but is slower today, compared to the A9 and A10 Fusion processors. Updated cameras coupled with the graphics properties of the A10 Fusion processor could improve the image and video performance in an updated iPod.

Now to think of the iPod’s future, another gadget from the Apple family itself, is being considered as the alternative to the music streaming device – the Apple Watch. However, along with being way more expensive than iPods, the Apple Watch is a technologically advanced sibling of the iPod. Although the Apple Watch was not introduced as a music streaming device, it does the job just fine.

If Apple was to look into its own line-up of devices to make up for the departure of the iPod, it would probably update the Watch rather than a fading line.

The iPod however, is bound to hold a special place in the hearts of an entire generation, whose fascination with technology was enkindled through the device. At the time it was introduced, the iPod was a revolution in itself, which also elevated the larger value of the company.

While some may call the iPod obsolete, redundant, it will indeed be iconic for many.

This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Fast Track on Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.

Kanishk Karan