iPod dead: How Apple’s original music device changed the world – and why it had to leave it

Over 20 years, the MP3 player changed Apple and the music industry in ways that would bring about its own demise

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 11 May 2022 17:17
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Apple Discontinues Last Remaining iPod Model

The iPod is dead. Apple has announced that the iPod Touch – the last surviving part of the product line-up – is being discontinued.

But the legacy of the iPod lives on across the rest of Apple’s products as well as in the wider music industry.

When the first iPod was released, in October 2001, Apple was worth about $6bn. It’s now worth about 450 times that.

Over the same period, the music industry has changed immeasurably. The first iPod was largely used to listen to music that had been ripped off CDs that had been bought in physical shops; these days, most people barely even buy or own music, instead streaming it temporarily from the internet.

The iPod has been at the centre of those changes. Even the Touch is a demonstration of them: when the first iPod came out in 2001, it had a scroll wheel and a basic black and white screen, but the iPod Touch that came in 2007 was really just a thinner, cheaper iPhone.

Apple didn’t say why that iPod Touch no longer had a place in its line-up. (In fact, it didn’t even say it would stop selling it: its statement was titled “the music lives on” and indicated only that “iPod Touch will be available while supplies last”, leaving readers to work out what had actually happened.)

But it made very clear through the rest of its announcement why it was happening. It wants customers to move across to the other ways of listening to music that it offers: iPhones, HomePods, Apple Watches.

Some may hope that Apple has killed off the iPod to open up a new space in the Apple line-up, which is generally more sparse and choosy than the offerings of other technology companies. The iPod wasn’t taking up much space at Apple – it doesn’t even have its own shortcut at the top of Apple’s website – but there are other products rumoured to be on the way that could steal any remaining focus, such as its augmented reality glasses.

Those glasses, like every Apple product of the last 20 years, will owe a major debt to the iPod. It not only helped Apple grow big enough that it could dominate the tech industry, but also represented the first time it made technology that you actually wore on your body, where it has been joined by the Apple Watch, AirPods and other products besides.

Apple stressed that legacy in its announcement, which included a statement from marketing chief Greg Joswiak in which he reflected on how the iPod had changed both music and Apple. (If anything, the statement was unusually humble – the iPod changed a lot more than just music.)

The iPod was never really threatened by any other music player, and it was really Apple that was responsible for killing off the product that arguably saved it

“Today, the spirit of iPod lives on,” he said. “We’ve integrated an incredible music experience across all of our products, from the iPhone to the Apple Watch to HomePod mini, and across Mac, iPad, and Apple TV. And Apple Music delivers industry-leading sound quality with support for spatial audio — there’s no better way to enjoy, discover, and experience music.”

In truth, exactly the way that the spirit of the iPod moved onto other Apple products that eventually allowed it to die. Apple took the best of the iPod and moved it into its other, newer offerings – and in doing so began the journey that led to the announcement the iPod was finished.

In 2007, Steve Jobs took to the stage at Macworld and said Apple would be introducing three new tools: an iPod, a phone, and an internet device – repeating the three categories until it became clear they would be united in the iPhone.

Initially, sales continued to grow even after the iPhone was announced: in 2008 and 2009, Apple sold more iPods than ever, helped by the introduction of the iPod Touch and new Classic and Nano models. But by 2010, as the iPhone continued to flourish, iPod sales dropped off, and Apple readily admitted it was ready for them to decline as they were cannibalised by the phone.

That meant that the iPod was never really threatened by any other music player, and it was really Apple that was responsible for killing off the product that arguably saved it. In the end it was new categories, not new competitors, that signalled the end of the MP3 player; the Creative Zen, the Microsoft Zune and more attempted to break into the market but never did.

In the years that followed, however, the iPod continued to keep a devoted following, even as Apple indicated that it saw the future as streaming rather than saving music. Even today, thousands of the most recognisable iPod – the Classic – are being sold on eBay, presumably to music fans who would rather store their music libraries locally rather than relying on the internet and streaming services.

The Touch had other benefits, given that it was the cheapest way into the iOS ecosystem and therefore less like the Classic than a cheaper iPhone. Apple promoted it as a way of giving children the ability to play games from the App Store, for instance, and it was useful for professional situations where people didn’t need the extra power or connections of a full-blown iPhone.

Not all fans of the iPod Touch were nostalgic music fans or people looking to swerve Apple’s more expensive offerings – it had other uses too. For instance, Parker Higgins, the director of advocacy at Freedom of the Press Foundation, noted that he and others have recommended the device to people who might be at risk of cyberattack, since it can be used to access messaging services without the dangers of having a SIM card that could be hacked.

It is one of the many unexpected consequences of a device that helped change both Apple and the music industry in ways that even its creators can’t truly have foreseen. And, in the end, it was the changes that the iPod brought – music everywhere, over the internet, in your pocket – that eventually killed it off.

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