Rocking it old skool… sort of. The iPod Classic, the true successor, ten years on. Photo (CC-BY-ND) Mac User’s Guide.

The tenth anniversary of the iPod debut means you’ll find plenty of commentaries on Apple’s iPod and how it has changed music. It’s an issue that’s been talked to death enough, continuously, in the past ten years that I’m literally uncertain there’s more I can say about it. Here’s one good, compact commentary from Daring Fireball, inspired by Macworld’s sharp review from the 2001 debut of the hardware.

Instead, let’s consider what hasn’t happened: Apple hasn’t discontinued the standalone iPod, as distinct from the iPad and iPhone and other general devices. For music lovers, that’s a big deal. The sad news is, the category itself has all but entirely imploded.

The last ten years has been in almost every category a kind of battle between dedicated devices and convergence devices. Anecdotally and statistically, you’ve seen people abandon dedicated video cameras, still cameras, audio recording gadgets, and audio players for something like their iPhone. Little wonder: unless you have enormous pockets, if the integrated device does the job – and its battery doesn’t give out – it means something that’s always at the ready.

Apple’s legacy in music players is curious: they both defined the category, and wiped out all the competition. And that’s true even before Apple changed the category again with the iPhone. That’s not the normal pattern: typically, in electronics or any other tech, the pioneer defines a space in which other competitors come and play. Not so with the iPod: a combination of shifting consumer trends, the profound success of the iTunes “ecosystem,” and the general ineptness of competitors to make quality, differentiated alternatives has led to the iPod standing more or less alone. The iTunes issue shouldn’t be overlooked: recall that when the iPod launched, record labels were still concerned about copy protection. The result was an iTunes-iPod relationship that ultimately kept consumers from working out the complexities of moving their music library to another, rival player. (The fact that most of the rival players weren’t any good didn’t help, so we can’t ever really know how much of a factor this was.)

Two things have happened this fall. Microsoft did discontinue the Zune, in what seems the final death knell for any major dedicated music player that isn’t made by Apple:
Microsoft confirms Zune HD is dead

But, secondly, even as various analysts predicted Apple would kill the dedicated iPod players or even the iPhone-with-no-phone iPod touch, Apple didn’t discontinue anything.

Not so much: Microsoft’s now officially-dead Zune. It copied everything I didn’t like about the iPod (the need for dedicated software) without doing anything differently enough to make it a real rival. Photo (CC-BY-ND) asurroca.

My favorite player remains Apple’s iPod Classic. It’s beautifully designed, holds an absurd amount of music no phone can match (160 GB), and has a simple, clean interface for getting to your music. It’s sad to me only that it’s the only choice, particularly because the one thing rivals did have going for them was easier, more open sync rather than iTunes-only solutions. In fact, even the original iPod had as a major selling point the ability to work as a dedicated hard drive. As a purchaser of the first iPod, one of my favorite features was the ability to easily tote around a big file or two atop the music library.

Oh, yeah, and it’ll still run when your phone battery is dying, and it costs just US$249 – no phone contract required. Ahem.

Phones as playback devices are pretty great. But remember that the original dream of the iPod was something different: it was the ability to put your whole music library on one device and take it anywhere. My main question is how that legacy will pan out. Dedicated music devices give you distraction-free access to nothing but music, and ongoing storage innovations mean that something that’s just a music device may long exceed what the convergence devices can do, surviving for the reason SLR cameras do.

Apple’s iPod series will last so long as people keep buying them; Apple seems in no hurry to walk away from extra revenue. (It’s part of the reason why they’ve got all that cash, folks.) But I wonder in the long term what will happen to the category. To me, the major gaping hole is something a lot of us wanted even when we saw the first iPod: a dedicated, pro-quality music player, a kind of audiophile iPod. It doesn’t need any fancy features or silly gold-plated jacks, just something dedicated to playing music and nothing else. I wonder if we’ll ever see that, or if it’ll be another casualty of the explosion in consumer gadgets. In the meantime, long live the iPod Classic.

And for the record, if you do have an original iPod from ten years ago, you can still make it sing: install Linux and it’ll even run Pd.

  • I remeber the debate over DRM enbabled tracks and how many times consumers can move/copy tracks to other computers and what limits where in place to burn tracks. DRM technology, music players, and jukeboxes for PC's have also come and gone away. Does anyone use WinAmp? Musicmatch (an early version did sync with iPod on Windows.) Rio? Even embedded players in peer to peer packages met their demise. A lot of people used Napster and Limewire to listen to their growing library and eventually had to make a switch to something else. Apple improved iTunes with podcast, audio books, videos, and an eclectic collection of radio stations. I even think iTunes is a web browser sometimes ever since it was bundled with QuickTime. These were the key to winning people over to use iTunes with a dedicated device. Also, using one app to support low budget players (shuffle and mini) and then upgrading to bigger devices and even a phone meant not having to reinstall another app. Streaming music to a 3g/4g device is where Apple missed the boat. It meant mobility of a “collection.” Thousands of people stream Pandora on their iPhones and this is where the mp3 players of yesterday didn’t plan for. I also discounted streaming models. I just never saw the revenue in it and got out of that scene quick. I threw my chips into interactive television and devices that allowed you to watch TV and also be a prt of the content streaming. Bloomberg killed that when he couldn't find a profit in it.

    One idea that I think didn’t take off was giving people ability to author digital content. It’s a huge part of where we are going. Apple has it right. They have QuickTime. It’s under the hood of iTunes. The ability to “convert” media in iTunes is the secret weapon. Next, there will be an ability to distribute the media via this package. Even though “casting” is still in control of open source elites, now that there will be a way to send live content from an iPhone to every iTunes that’s connected, eliminating the cloud.

  • Good job Peter.

  • Lets give the ipod/itunes a hundred years and then compare it to Edison's phonograph to see how it holds up.  Sorry guys, just a little fatigued by all this Jobs mania.  

    On  a related note, check out the Pixar documentary. A good window into Job's gutsy business practices that enabled him to become major shareholder of one of the largest entertainment corporations of all time…Walt Disney. 

  • I really hope dedicated devices will survive this all-in-one-wonder-mania! In the end it's the same as with life in general. It's better to do one thing and do it well, than do many but badly.

    Though it feels like only a small crowd is still seeing the advantages of a dedicated device.

    This aside, I kind of never got into the whole itunes business, and happily so. What most people see as a convenience I see as a more complicated and more cumbersome way to do something really simple, like listening to music. I think the iPod was a success because it was the first one to use a hard disk instead of a flash memory and had a well designed interface. Guess many people accepted iTunes because they had to, and then, people get used to it. I mean… a lot of people kept using Internet Explorer 6, when they could have had Firefox, just because it was there and they were used to it.

    Apple did then a great job in making sure people would not leave the itunes ecosystem so easily once they were in.

  • kconnor9000

    The audiophile ipod — I think that's still an Airport Express with the optical output plugged into the nice headphone amp on your bedside table, or whatever's your taste in D/A, amplification, presentation chain. The Apple 'Remote' app is great for leaving all your lossless content sitting on your computer in another room. I haven't tried airplay yet. Anyhow, this is a really cheap 16/44.1 solution that makes sense if you already play in the Apple music ecosystem (phone or touch for control, itunes for storage).

    That said, I should really stress that quality perception is 90% a question of /attention/ to my mind. When it's a question of listening to a good pair headphones connected directly to an ipod, vs. streaming that same file over a good D/A, the differences are subtle to non-existent. The effect of degree of attention makes a bigger difference, imo. That's why I love listening to vinyl and cassettes, still. The ritual of putting the damn thing on, the small but real time commitment, the physicality — these all contribute to a heightened state of attention, that leads to the heightened musical experience, imo. I'm under no illusions that vinyl sounds better, all other elements in the chain being equal. But I often find new details in familiar music /when conditions for concentration/ are good, even with substandard presentation. It's all about expectation, concentration and attention, and whatever ritual helps you — go for it. My most valuable listening in the past as a teen was on the bus, crappy headphones and a noisy environment, but intense focus.

    So long and short — the audiophile ipod is the one where you listen to it in a good state of attention 😉

  • I've own four iPods not counting my iPhone: 3rd gen, 5th gen, iPod Touch 1st gen, and I just bought an iPod Classic today in part because the HD on my main machine (a MacBook Pro) just bit the dust.  I'm currently "rotating my data" to make sure I don't lose anything. Bought a new 1 TB HD for backup and a 160GB classic essentially as a playable iTunes library backup drive (library currently 100+ GB).

    I'm still amazed at how Apple took over a market that Sony owned. I may have grown up in the Walkman era but I've left my foam earphones long behind.

    It's also been 10 years of iTunes, although longer if you want to include its ancestor SoundJam MP (I loved that program). The software-hardware relationship that helped the iPod dominate definitely can't go without mention. Still funny that my "Music" folder contains my movies, books, and mobile applications these days. A convoluted hierarchy that points to the iPod as the ancestor.