It's the end of the iPod as we know it

The big news this week promises to be Apple's annual September product launch on Wednesday. Of course, the famously secretive company won't confirm anything before then, but if the rumors are to be believed, Apple is about to release another generation of refreshed iPods on a drooling world.

Which begs the question: Does the world even need a new iPod? Or, viewed another way, have the old iPods run their course? Or another, does anyone buy single-function music players anymore, or has the world moved on to multifunction devices?

The classic has had its day

The cynic in me believes the Day the iPod Died was when Apple shifted away from its hard drive-based iPod classic, and moved toward the flash-based iPod touch. Indeed, the touch -- either the model Apple is selling now, or the one that'll be on sale following this week's announcement -- has infinitely more in common with the iPhone than it ever had with the original iPod. Which means it isn't really much of an iPod at all. Which, from where I sit, means the iPod, as a brand, refers to yesterday's technology.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)So why does Apple insist on maintaining a brand that, to most consumers, connotes a device that only plays music?

Of the four basic types of iPods -- shuffle, nano, touch and classic -- only the touch is sufficiently differentiated from anything else currently on the market. The other three are basic variations on the same old theme (stylish music player) that's been around since 2001. While they differ in physical size, screen and storage capacity, we use them to play music, and as our eyes permit, videos.

Apple keeps four differentiated types of iPods around because the basic engineering on at least two of these lines (classic and nano) hasn't fundamentally changed in years. While the classic's been in freefall for some time and will either die this week or soldier on for another year or so before quietly fading into history, the margins and sales numbers for the nano make this unassuming, no-longer-leading-edge media player the backbone of the franchise. While axing the nano would be a dramatic move that would likely garner breathless international headlines well beyond the tech pages, it wouldn't do much for Apple's bottom line. Expect the nano to hang around for a while.

Apple's iPod event 2009

So has the shuffle

The shuffle was Apple's first truly mass market iPod, and when the first chewing gum-sized model was released in 2005, the price of admission for everyday music listeners into the Legion of Apple was driven low enough that fans who didn't care about the lack of a screen or severely limited capacity bought in anyway, no questions asked. They valued the cachet of being part of iPod Nation. (I say "they" -- my own shuffle is still kicking around in my car.)

But that first shuffle was a brilliantly simple and robust design compared to today's over-engineered, undersized generation. The only worry with my old one was where to keep the cap when charging it through the built-in USB connector. These days, shuffle owners have to carry around their cables with them, and hope they don't lose them before their battery dies. And using it in the car? Forget it: The minimalist design that led to all the controls being cattle-prodded onto Apple's innovative (and fussy...and expensive-to-replace) headphones also now prevents you from simply jacking it into your car stereo's audio port. Well, okay, you sort of can, but don't expect to be able to change tunes on the fly. Needless to say, I won't shed a tear when this one's discontinued. It won't be for a while, of course, but let the record show I'm no fan of proprietary designs that limit a device's use.

So we're left with the touch -- pretty much the only iPod worth buying anymore, and the only device in the line that's really not an iPod at all. As you can tell even from a distance, the touch is not so much a music and video player as part of a full-on platform that's redefining the concept of tablets and webpads in ways we're only beginning to understand. Apple's masterstroke in bringing it to market was leveraging its iPhone development process into a device that delivers the complete iPhone application experience for folks who'd rather not have the phone as well (or who would rather not have AT&T). In so doing, Apple accelerated the rate at which it could recoup its fundamental research and development costs for the platform -- a trick which allows it to make more money for a longer period on each premium-priced touch than would otherwise be the case.

Wants, not needs

So the answers to my questions from way back in the second paragraph become plainly apparent: No; no one really needs an iPod. It was, and always has been, an aspirational purchase, one that typically costs more than competing devices, offers relatively fewer features for a given price paid (I'm still waiting for voice recording capability, Mr. Jobs), and locks owners into an iTunes universe that isn't everyone's cup of tea.

Despite all this, carrying an iPod -- from the humble shuffle all the way up to the innovative touch -- still brings with it a personal sense of inclusion in a not altogether exclusive, but still desirable, club. No one brags about his Creative Sansa; and whether tomorrow's iPod bears any resemblance to the iPod that first bowed in 2001, is virtually meaningless in the context of everyday conversation. We may not be able to buy music-only iPods for too much longer, but buyers won't really care either way. They've become comfortable with the brand, whatever it signifies, and look forward to someday getting touch-level capability at a shuffle/nano price point.

And that comfort level almost guarantees that, as of this Wednesday, enough people will want the new devices with the word "iPod" on them that it won't matter that they're being sold under a brand that's increasingly irrelevant to consumers, in a world that increasingly sees single function devices as commoditized and ultimately forgettable. Wherever the iPod presently stands on its maturity curve, the brand will continue to lead the market, prompting us to replace our old ones, just because, for some time to come. The devices may be marketed as "new," but nothing's really going to change for a while.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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