Is the iPod Dying?

July 8th, 2010

The conventional wisdom has it that the iPod is yesterday’s news. Yes, Apple continues to hold a dominant share of the digital media player marketplace, with nobody, not even Microsoft, having a ghost of a chance to compete. But the overall sales have flattened and begun to decline slightly. Apple no longer makes quite as much total income from the product lineup that’s credited with making the company a credible player in the consumer electronics industry.

But as much as some might be ready to write the iPod’s epitaph as yesterday’s news, let me remind you that Apple has also sold another 50 million or so products that include an iPod, but it’s just one of many features. That, of course, is the iPhone.

Now some, even Apple, regard the iPhone and the iPod as two totally separate product lines with only a symbolic link. At the same time, the standard Home screen of an iPhone and an iPad contain one telltale app, called iPod.

Yes, maybe Apple has reduced the functionality of the traditional iPod to a single application on two hot-selling gadgets that have a lot more features, but that doesn’t make them any less an iPod.

After all, the iPod was never anything more than a tiny handheld computer that played digital media files. At first, they were limited to music, but expanded to include movies and home videos.

There’s even an iPod nowadays, the nano, which masquerades as a pocket camcorder, but then that’s one function that the iPhone also serves, and perhaps there will be a camera in a future iPod touch and iPad.

This all-in-one functionality has always played a strong role in Apple’s product lines. The very first Mac wasn’t just a personal computer, but a fully functioning display as well. It didn’t make a Mac — or today’s iMac or portable — any less in terms of either product category when considered separately. This is especially true for the iMac, which incorporates a gorgeous desktop display and the guts of a powerful personal computer that, in the high-end editions, comes awfully close in performance to the Mac Pro workstation.

Considering Apple is all about integration — hardware and software — it makes sense that the iPod would ultimately morph into a type of Tricorder, that legendary handheld computer that was featured in various forms in the Star Trek TV shows and movies.

It just so happens that the iPhone and iPad beat the Tricorder because the latter doesn’t, at least according to the Star Trek legend, play music, or maybe I’m missing something in one of those novels based on the series.

Now there are certainly valid reasons for Apple to separate music players from smartphones and tablets. But so long as they merge the functionality of a music player into full-featured alternatives, there’s no difference in a practical sense. When it comes to product focus, labeling and accounting, you still have an iPod, and millions of people continue to buy them because they don’t want or need the rest of the features.

Certainly when parents hand out gear to children, only the older ones would merit a smartphone. The younger members of the family might get a phone, but it would be a special type oriented towards their age category, with the iPod holding their music and video libraries.

Remember, too, that Apple remains one of the few consumer electronics companies to actually have a long-term vision. Sure the other players might tell you they do — and I’m sure some, such as Sony and Panasonic — do have large R&D labs with some pretty snazzy gear under development. But Apple seems to have done it better than most of the competition.

So it should come as no surprise the direction the iPod has taken, and why its descendants are delivered as smartphones and tablet PCs. This isn’t to say that the roadmaps are always perfectly formed years in advance.

Steve Jobs has admitted, and there’s no reason to disbelieve him, that the iPhone was spun off from early efforts to build an iPad, which didn’t arrive, as we all know, until three years later.

That’s also a natural part of the product development process. Sometimes things take longer to gel, and there may be forks in the road where other product possibilities become possible.

What’s more, I don’t see the cheapest iPods disappearing. There will be a need for a tiny $49 music player for many years. It will become more powerful, with enough storage capacity to contain most anyone’s music library. But it will still be an iPod.

I suppose the best way to examine Apple’s mobile initiative is to lump all of the products together, which includes the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and regard them as one category with three branches.

If a major change is to come, it will be when and if the iPad reaches critical mass and becomes a legitimate Mac replacement. That sales of the iPad and the Mac are essentially the same now isn’t the issue. It’s whether the iPad can continue to gain momentum, and I expect it will, although the critics are still not sure.

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10 Responses to “Is the iPod Dying?”

  1. Andrew says:

    I’m pretty sure the iPad and its descendants will be with us for some time to come. The form-factoris just so convenient for so many uses.

  2. dfs says:

    In trying to read the tea leaves for the iPod, it’s probably best to separate the Touch from the rest of the line. The Touch is great for people want a flexible small mobile device you can shove into a pocket or purse, but for one reason or another (such as unwillingness or inability to buy into a hugely expensive service contract) don’t want or need an iPhone. Especially for those, such as universitiy students, who spend a lot of time in an environment with available wireless connectivity, the Touch is all that plenty of folks need. So this is a device that has legs, it’s a safe bet that it will be around for a long while. Give it a camera and ability to take video, both of which I’m sure will come sooner or later, and it’s an even safer bet. The rest of the iPod line is a different story. Basically it comes down to this, do you want to spend your money for a small mobile MP3 player that has very limited other capacities, or do you want to spend it for a small mobile MP3 player that can do a gazillion other things as well and has a huge cool factor? That’s pretty much a no-brainer, isn’t it? So I wouldn’t be surprised if sales of the rest of the iPod line dry up sooner rather than later.

  3. Kirk McElhearn says:

    I’m willing to bet that the iPod classic will disappear. We’ll see a touch with more capacity (probably 128 GB), a nano, perhaps at a lower price, and maybe the shuffle will die out. (Which would be a shame, even though I think the current shuffle sucks; the previous one with buttons is much better.)

    However, it’s clear that all the new functionality will be going into the touch. That’s where the money is; not only for hardware, but also for apps, books, etc.

  4. winc06 says:

    The iPod not only provides an entry into Apple’s hand held devices. It also provides an item for us folks with larger music collections and fans of higher bit rates. It was instructive, I think, to see that Apple did not increase the available memory on the the iPhone 4. I think Apple is just fine with continuing to sell iPods even at a lower level. I don’t think anyone is arguing that iTunes sales are going down. All the devices add to the bottom line. Also, some of us still prefer the iPod OS for finding music to iOS.

  5. Andrew says:

    I hope they don’t ditch the classic. My 160 GB model lives in the glove box of my car, permanently hooked up to the iPod kit. Once in a while, I bring it in to sync with iTunes, but what a joy to have my ENTIRE music library (about 48 GB at present) accessible through the steering wheel buttons.

  6. James Katt says:

    The iPod isn’t dying.

    The iPod is morphing into the iPod Touch. And the newest iPod Touch is the iPhone 4 without the cellular radio.

    There will always be an iPod Touch. The iPod touch is the gateway drug for the iPhone.

  7. Zach says:

    I haven’t bought an iPhone yet simply because I don’t like AT&T’s service. They remind me too much of Hughes Net with their data plans. Once Apple makes the move to change contract terms with them, maybe I’ll think about it.

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