Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea–it’s clunky and inefficient–but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.

The End of the iPod

It was just a dozen years ago, but it seems like it’s been decades. In October, 2001, Apple introduced the first iPod. No one knew, at the time, that Apple’s portable music player would revolutionize the way we listen to music, and the music industry itself. The iPod certainly wasn’t the first MP3 player, but it was the first to get it right: the combination of the iPod for portable listening and iTunes to store and sync music, made managing digital music easy. But now, the iPod is on its last legs.

Over the years, we saw many Apple presentations which highlighted new iPods. Steve Jobs would go overboard describing how cool the new features were. Apple’s zeitgeist was all about music. Bands such as U2 and Coldplay played at the ends of these Apple events, and Apple TV commercials were all about music.

Apple successively added new models to the iPod line, and, with them, new features. From being simply a music-playing device, the iPod added the ability to view photos, then videos. It got successively smaller, with the iPod mini, nano and shuffle, and inherited a touchscreen display, nine months after Apple introduced the iPhone. Today, the iPod line is dominated by the iPod touch, which can play all sorts of media, but also take pictures and videos, and run apps, but Apple still sells the iPod nano, classic and shuffle.

Where can the iPod go next? iPod market share has been sliding slowly as the iPhone came to dominate the pocket-sized device market. For most people, the iPhone holds all their music; there’s no reason to need anything else. The iPad is also cannibalizing some iPod sales: if you don’t want to device put in your pocket, a tablet can play music and videos, but also give you a large enough screen to surf the web comfortably.

Apple still sells a direct descendent of the very first iPod: the iPod classic. This model is the only hard-drive-based music player that Apple sells. While this is fragile (I ruined an iPod classic once by dropping it; the hard drive died), it also offers larger capacity than current flash memory based devices. However, if Apple can get the price of flash memory down enough to offer similar capacities in an iPod touch, the classic’s only trump card gets beaten.

I like the classic because I have a huge music library; much more than the device can hold. But if Apple could sell me an iPod touch with the same capacity – 160 GB, or even more, at a comparable price – I’d be tempted to buy one. While the iPod touch is more versatile, it’s much more expensive. The iPod classic costs just $249, compared to $399 for the 64 GB iPod touch. If you look at the price Apple charges for additional flash memory for iPads, it would cost $100 more to get to 128 GB; and how much more than that to get to 256 GB?

Perhaps Apple needs to take a different tack for the future of the iPod. Most iPhone users have enough capacity for their music libraries. But the hard-core music fans with 50,000, 100,000 or more tracks in their iTunes libraries find it too restrictive. In addition, there is a growing market of audiophiles who are interested in better sounding portable music players.

With this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a flash memory based device with 512 GB of storage, and the ability to play high-resolution files. It would have a digital optical output, allowing users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, so they can have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate the improved sound quality when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to go for high-capacity storage: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), 512 GB would hold about 500 albums, or 5,000 songs. If you stick with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 1,000 albums, which would be fine for most users. The flash storage would be costly, but the people this device would appeal to might be willing to pay for it.

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an audiophile-quality DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200. Apple could use a similar audiophile-quality DAC, and, with the flash storage, probably make a device that would sell for less than $500.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that would stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface. It could be a touch screen, or voice control; perhaps even an iPod touch-like display with a virtual scroll wheel, to remind users of the original iPod.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

As the iPod continues its decline, it might be time to try and differentiate it from other portable music players. There’s nowhere to go with the iPod line, other than improving sound quality and increasing storage, and Apple could make a wonderful device that combines these two improvements.

Most likely, in another dozen years, we’ll access our music through blazingly fast 8G connections in lossless or high-resolution formats, streamed through the ether to slim key fob sized devices. We’ll listen to them on audiophile-quality wireless headphones, and we’ll be able to access all our music everywhere. But for now, at the end of the iPod era, Apple could make a bold statement with an iPod pro as a milestone to mark the end of an era.

This article was originally publish in Issue 21 of The Loop Magazine.

iWant: An iPod Pro

Let’s face it: the iPod is dying. Apple still sells the iPod classic – with 160 GB storage on a hard disk – the iPod nano, the iPod shuffle, and the iPod touch, but the iPod family, overall, is on its last legs. Look at these numbers, showing iPod sales over the past few years (source: Macworld):

appleq213-ipod-units-100034282-large.png

Apple’s still selling more than 12 million units a year, but that’s down from 19 million just two years ago. Compare that to iPhone units (source: Macworld):

appleq213-iphone-units-100034278-large.png

Apple is selling more than 37 million iPhones a quarter; the iPad sells more units than the iPod as well.

So, with this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a hard-drive based iPod (because of the storage capacity), with the ability to play high-resolution files, and with a digital optical output. This would allow users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, and have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate this when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to have more capacity than the current iPod classic: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), a 250 GB hard disk would hold about 200 albums. If you stuck with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 500 albums, which would be fine for most users. (Or, they could go to 512 GB of flash storage… Costly, but this is for a market that might be willing to pay for it.)

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an excellent DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Apple could use a similar quality DAC, and still come in at, say, $300 or so, with a goodly amount of storage.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that could stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

In Praise of the iPod Classic

product-white-classic.jpgAs we approach the now-familiar annual Apple new product announcement for the autumn, and await a new iPhone, it’s worth wondering what the fate of the iPod classic will be. Largely ignored in these days of touch screens and apps, the old stalwart hard-drive-filled iPod classic is, like the proverbial bunny, still ticking. It’s a great device, with lots of capacity.

I last wrote about the iPod classic about two years ago, wondering if Apple would kill off the iPod classic and shuffle. At the time, I examined Amazon.com’s list of best-selling MP3 players, and found that the iPod classic was number six in the list. As I write this article, the iPod classic is in seventh and eighteenth positions (for the two different-colored models); not bad for a device that Apple doesn’t advertise, and that is rarely mentioned in the tech press.

The rest of that best-seller list is interesting. Out of the top twenty devices, Apple has 15 of its music players present, compared with 14 two years ago. Apple is no longer number one, however; the SanDisk Sansa Clip+ 4 GB MP3 Player takes the crown. This is a low-priced device that is arguably better than the iPod shuffle, which only comes in at number 23.

Back in 2011, I said the following:

The iPod classic is the only hard-drive-based music player that Apple sells. While this is fragile (I ruined an iPod classic by dropping it once; the hard drive died), it also offers larger capacity than flash memory. However, if Apple can get the price of flash memory down enough to offer similar capacities in an iPod touch, the classic’s only trump card gets beaten. Personally, I like the classic because I have a huge library — much more than it can hold. But if Apple can sell me an iPod touch with the same capacity, 160 GB, or even more, at a comparable price, I’d go for it in a second. The iPod touch is far more versatile, yet far more expensive. The current 64 GB iPod touch lists at $400, compared to $359 for 160 GB on the iPod classic; that’s nearly three times as much capacity. I can’t see Apple offering more than 160 GB on a touch, but if they were to offer a 128 GB model for around the price of the classic, that would tempt a lot of users with big libraries. But it’s still not enough.

Some of the figures there need updating. While the iPod touch 64 GB is still $400, the iPod classic is only $249, a drop of $100 in two years, making it a bargain-priced device for the voracious listener. That’s only $20 more than the previous-version 16 GB iPod touch, which Apple still sells, and $50 less than the current iPod touch 32 GB.

To be honest, I haven’t used my iPod classic, or my iPod shuffle, for that matter, in a long time. Since I carry my iPhone with me all the time, I use that for music, especially since I got Bluetooth headphones and can listen without getting tangled in wires. But the iPod classic remains on my desk, a reminder of times past. I’m thinking of putting it in my car, which has a 1/8” jack for a portable music player. Why not have that much choice of music in a car?

Will Apple kill off the iPod classic? This time, I think they may. But in exchange, I hope they offer us an iPod touch, and even an iPhone, with 128 GB. I don’t know if I’d pay the price for that much storage in an iPhone – my current model is 32 GB, and I’m pining for 64 GB – but it would be nice to know it’s there if you have a very large music library and want to take a lot of music with you.

But the iPod classic remains the only direct descendant of the first iPod (in form factor, and technology). It’ll be a shame to see it go.

What Is the Gapless Album Tag in iTunes For? (Update)

Update: I’ve reposted this article because with the release of iTunes 11, the Gapless Album tag is no longer available in the program. However, many people don’t understand this, and think that the removal of this tag means that iTunes no longer plays music without gaps. This is incorrect. Read on and understand what this tag was for.

Following a comment from a Twitter friend, asking how to find which of a number of albums require gapless playback, I pointed him to an old article on this website. (I won’t link to it, as it was written in 2006, and addressed the problem of gapless playback on the iPod.) I realized that many people don’t understand what that Gapless Album tag is, so here’s a brief explanation.

If you select a number of tracks in iTunes, then choose Get Info, and click on the Options tab, you see this:



And if you choose a single track, you see this:



That tag at the bottom of the first screenshot, Gapless Album, or at the bottom of the second, Part of a Gapless Album (thanks for being consistent, Apple), has one, and only one usage. This tag only matters if you have Crossfade Song turned on in iTunes (Preferences > Playback), and it only affects playback from iTunes. All gapless albums are automatically detected and played as such on iPods and other iOS devices. You may even see iTunes “Determining Gapless Playback Information” when you add new files to your iTunes library; this is simply to find whether the music ends at the end of the file or not. (Not actually at the end, in fact; there’s a brief bit of silence no matter what, but it’s a set length, so if the silence is that length, iTunes knows to ignore it.)

So, unless you use Crossfade Songs, you never need to worry about this tag.

See Apple’s technical note about gapless playback.