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Is the iPod Dying?

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.