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.