Michael Hiltzik

RIP: The Apple iPod, 2001-2014

Farewell to the iPod, finally killed by Apple after 13 years

Quietly, even stealthily, Apple this week brought about that moment that many of its most loyal followers dreaded would happen: It killed off the iPod.  

Oh, the name lives on for now, attached to a suite of weird late-generation devices -- the Shuffle, the Nano, the Touch -- but when the Apple Store came back online Tuesday after going dark for the company's new-product launch, the last vestige of its original hard-drive click-wheel iPod was no longer for sale. 

Few people even noticed the absence of what the company had ultimately dubbed the iPod Classic. Fewer will lament its passing, even though it marked a revolution in portable music. There was its incredibly capacious storage of 160 gigabytes, enough to hold the entire music library of all but the most obsessive music collectors; its elegant design in almost all its incarnations over six generations (or maybe seven, depending on how you count); its class.

Over the years I've probably owned six iPods, not counting those we bought for the kids. I still have three -- an original 1-gigabyte flash-memory Shuffle, which no longer works; and an 80-gig fifth-generation model and 160-gig Classic, which do. 

Over time, it must be said, Apple signaled its increasing contempt for the device that launched its reputation for first-class human-factor engineering in the consumer market. By 2010, when the iPod had gone more than a year without a capacity or design upgrade, I observed that the newly dubbed Classic was being treated as a stepchild. "It doesn't have the big screen of the iPod Touch, or the game-playing capability, or digital cameras or Wi-Fi antenna," I wrote. "All it's got is roominess, 160 gigabytes worth."

In my opinion, the iPod reached its design peak in 2003 with the third generation, a lovely device which had an unlabeled touch-only click wheel and four small action buttons -- menu, play/pause, fast-forward and rewind -- that glowed red when the backlight was activated. The device got clunkier from there, but it always had a satisfying heft in the hand that signaled both compactness and capacity.

Music collectors lamented Apple's move to less-capacious multimedia phones, pads and other units, even though Steve Jobs had pitched the original iPod as a breakthrough "that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go." (See the accompanying video of his 2001 product launch.) Jobs perceived that when travelers discovered they didn't have cassettes with them that they wanted to hear on their Walkmen, they wouldn't listen to anything at all. He thought that was a shame, so he insisted that the iPod's capacity be immense. 

Eventually, however, Apple's business model evolved, and the iPod evolved with it. Originally it was a repository for music its owner had acquired elsewhere, either in CD form or (usually illegally) from a file-sharing service such as Napster -- Apple didn't sell music at the time.

The balance shifted after Apple launched the iTunes music store in 2003; within a week it had sold 1 million songs. As the store branched out into videos, TV shows and movies, the iPod's capacity expanded to absorb the new content — 40 GB in 2003, 60 in 2004 (when its screen acquired the ability to display color photographs), 80 in 2005, 160 in 2007.

But device storage is now less important because content can be streamed from the Cloud. An iPhone with 16 gigs is almost as good as one with 32, because it'll be fed over data services either way. The hard-drive iPods are technological relics, and in terms of sales, they've been nowheresville for years. 

Yet there's a sense in which Apple has abandoned those users who still want to carry their entire music collections with them, as Steve Jobs recognized. What do you do when you're stuck out of reach of a data stream, such as on an airplane? Deciding which few gigs of my music collection I want to download so they're available in flight is exactly the exercise I want to avoid. So on a long trip, I'll still be bringing my 160-GB Classic along, for as long as it lasts.

The iPod had such a profound impact on the way many of us listen to music that it seems to have been around forever. So it's a bit of a shock to realize that that introductory launch hosted by Jobs took place the month after 9/11

Valedictories to the old iPod can be found here, here and here.

I loved my iPods, every single one of them, and when I tell my grandchildren about the old days when a music player only played music, and had a black-and-white screen and yet was as thick as a deck of cards (or as Jobs said in 2001, as "tiny" as a deck of cards), there will be a tear in my eye. Godspeed.

Keep up to date with The Economy Hub by following @hiltzikm.

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