And My Dream of a Better iPod Takes Another Blow

Good news, everyone! Oh wait — not so good news:

If you want to buy an iPod shuffle or iPod classic from Apple, you should do it sooner rather than later. We’ve heard those two iPods are getting the axe this year. (Courtesy TUAW)

Assuming this is true, is it likely that Apple is going to release a 128-gigabyte iPod touch this Christmas, so that die-hard music lovers might find something in their stockings that comes close to suiting their needs? I’m guessing not. The mp3 player market is dead. They are to this young decade what digital watches were in the ’80s: formerly sleek emblems of progress reduced in price and stature until they ended up being sold out of gumball machines.

Time was that Apple needed to offer a high-capacity iPod model to stand out from the competition. Now that race is run, and music playing is just one more function on a smart phone, or a handheld gaming and Internet device (to describe the iPod touch accurately). If the rumor is true and the shuffle is in line for the axe along with the classic, that means that the iPod nano will be the only remaining device Apple makes whose primary function is to store and play music — and i think it’s reasonable to assume that the nano will itself continue to exist only until Apple can price an iPod touch below $199. (Side bet: if the above rumor comes to pass, watch the nano drop to $99.)

So why is this a big enough deal that I keep harping on it? Because there is no smartphone or iPod touch that can do what an iPod classic does: hold a library of songs numbering in the tens of thousands, all stored locally and accessible without a network connection. And it does not offer a hardware interface optimized for playing music.

Don’t mistake this for sentimentality or Ludditism. (Ludditery?) I recently started using Rdio and was sufficiently taken with it that I thought it might obviate the need for my iPod classic. It offers a sizable library to choose from, the mobile app is pretty slick and it has some nice music discovery tools. But it doesn’t offer the granularity of iTunes: the ability to rate songs, tag songs, construct dynamic playlists or change metadata. In short, it doesn’t afford the kind of advantages that come from owning and curating your own music files. So Rdio on my iPhone is like having two different, mutually incompatible music libraries, one of which has everything by the Beatles (in mono, even) and not much else, the other of which is so ungainly it has 12 different songs called “Learning to Fly,” just because I wanted to see how many there are. (There are more than 12, but it was starting to get ridiculous.) And if I want to, say, make a playlist with “Flying” and Kate Earl’s “Learning to Fly”? Well, that ain’t happening. I can put Kate Earl on my iPod, but I can’t put the Beatles on Rdio.

If the classic is going away, then I and thousands of others like me are marooned. Our choices are to either keep our devices operating until Apple offers a new product that can serve our needs (mine is already three years old and on its second battery), or jump ship for something else. Such a change, for all I know, may not be possible, or if it’s possible, it may not be worth the trouble. Leaving the iPod will also mean leaving iTunes, and the information that app has stored about my music — my ratings, my playlists, which songs I’ve played or skipped in a given time — is, given the nerd-tastic way I listen to music, almost as valuable as the music itself.

So while I am chagrined to arrive at the end of the road with my iPod, I am hopeful that some competitor out there will finally seize the opportunity to build a music player that offers us what Apple will not. People are still buying vinyl records, for god’s sake. You mean to tell me there is really no return on catering to rabid music listeners — people who have already demonstrated their willingness to devote a lot more of their income to music than the average person?

Anyone want to sell me an mp3 player?

My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)

Recently my 160 GB iPod classic began showing signs of advanced age. I would fully charge it, play it a bit, leave it to the side for a day and return to find the battery nearly depleted, sometimes so low it wouldn’t turn on. I began to think it was time, that this device had finally reached the point where it could be allowed to retire gracefully.

I bought this iPod, my third, shortly after the “classic” designation was first introduced. I was thrilled: this was the first iPod large enough to hold the entirety of my music collection, freeing me from the burden of curating playlists and trying to second-guess what my tastes would be on a given day. (I have largely re-assumed this burden with my 32 GB iPhone, but that is another matter.) It did not trouble me at the time that, merely by calling its former flagship product a “classic,” Apple was signaling that the iPod’s glory days as a music device were behind it. A classic is something beyond the need for evolution or change, something that provides the same pleasures over and over, something — if I may get momentarily pretentious — more associated with memories than hopes.

So, back to my ailing iPod classic. I had some extra money and, what’s more, an impeccable justification for replacing my current model. Except I dragged my feet. I looked at the refurbished models on the Apple website and noted with approval that I could save quite a bit of money buying used. Gradually it dawned on me that I didn’t want to buy a new iPod. Not because of sentimental attachment to the current one — though I love Apple technology, the devices themselves are completely fungible to me, and I have no hesitation in dumping my current object of affection for something new and improved. The problem is that the current iPod classic really isn’t improved from the model I bought in 2008. Today’s classic supports Genius playlists and … I’m not really sure what else. There is certainly no difference of any substance. I can’t think of another Apple product so little improved over so long a time. But then, why improve a “classic”?

I see the logic. Apple is about iOS devices: the iPad, the iPhone and its bastard offspring, the iPod touch. The iOS platform is Apple’s chance to directly influence the evolution of an entire new computing paradigm, in a way they didn’t quite do with the Macintosh. They’d be crazy not to put all of their eggs in that basket. And let’s face it: mp3 players are so five years ago.

Click to continue reading “My New iPod. (Please, Apple?)”

Time to Kill the Nano

After weeks of rumors, it seems nearly certain that the new iPod nano, debuting Tuesday, returns to the vertical form-factor of the first two iterations, a reversal from the “fat nano” Apple debuted around this time last year. (Here’s the shot if you haven’t seen it yet.)

Assuming this is all true, the move seems oddly retrograde to me. Apple, more than most other companies, prefers — perhaps even needs — to present each new product as an evolution from what came before. A new iMac design isn’t just different: it’s thinner, or lighter, or more ecologically friendly, in addition to the usual speed and storage improvements. Most iPod iterations so far have followed this pattern. The second nano featured a more durable metal enclosure, its successor a horizontal layout that allowed for a wider, video-friendly screen. Other iPod updates have added a non-mechanical scroll wheel, color screen, and so on.

The fourth iPod nano appears to be moving backwards, returning to the visual style of the second model. It may be this year’s models will boast new functionality not apparent in the spy photos, and that such functionality may make aesthetic considerations irrelevant. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the fat nano simply didn’t work, and that Apple was retracing its steps to a more successful and well-received design. (I won’t entertain the notion that the form factor was inspired by the Zune.)

The nano would appear to have come to the end of its road, at least in regards to its design. It’s time for something new.

It’s time for Apple to kill the nano.

From a normal business perspective, this would be foolish — the nano still sells well, most likely remaining the best-selling iPod model, as it has been since its release. The retro model to be unveiled this week will undoubtedly sell well and give Apple another successful holiday quarter.

But how different from the Apple of 2005, which was in the exact same position with the nano’s predecessor, the iPod mini. Ever fearful of being leapfrogged by a competitor, Apple saw the mini as vulnerable, and decided that if anyone was going to kill their top-selling product, it was going to be them. The mini was terminated and the first-generation nano appeared in its place. The audacity of the move was nearly as stunning as the player itself: with the 2005 holiday shopping season about to begin, Apple chose an inopportune time to roll out a completely new product, and many observers felt that the nano’s early supply issues would have been avoided (and Apple’s holiday sales better) if they had waited until the following year to carry out the switch. Besides, who in their right mind kills a market-leading product? It’s like some action-movie badass who carves his own chest before going into battle; Apple’s competition must have been both baffled and scared shitless.

Today the iPod touch is arguably Apple’s “flagship” media player, its sleekest, most forward-looking and probably most desirable. But for the majority of buyers, those with small music collections and a need for a small and unobtrusive (but still usable) player, the nano is the best choice. Apple needs to reclaim the functional and aesthetic leadership in this space, and show its competition it’s not afraid to throw the dice on something new, bold and innovative.