It seems to be a law of nature that, just like toothpaste and government tax codes, great consumer technologies eventually become so overgrown with options or "improvements" that the original versions are indiscernible.
Microsoft has Word, its flagship word-processing program, which is so encrusted today with tools and features of less-than-universal utility that figuring out how to type a simple paragraph can take hours of consultation with the Help feature.
Apple has the iPod.
The original iPod, introduced by Steve Jobs in October 2001, was a marvel of elegant design. The capacity of the $399 product was 5 gigabytes, enough to accommodate 1,000 songs at the crude standards of data compression of the time.
Jobs pitched the device as a breakthrough "that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go." That was a major source of its appeal. Travelers in the pre-iPod era had to sit down before leaving home and choose a selection of CDs or cassette tapes to pack with their portable players or Sony Walkmen — only to discover, inevitably, that the one CD they really wanted to listen to was still in the pile back home.
It's hard to avoid the feeling now that Apple has abandoned that principle — and in the process left in the lurch the very customers who helped make the iPod a millennial success. I'm talking about audiophiles, or even garden-variety music lovers with large digital libraries.
When Apple announced the latest upgrades to its expanded iPod line this month, the one iPod that didn't get a wash and brush-up was the only one that still offers enough capacity to hold a serious music lover's entire library.
That one is now designated the iPod Classic, and it's treated as the stepchild of the line. It doesn't have the big screen of the iPod Touch, or the game-playing capability, or digital cameras or Wi-Fi antenna. All it's got is roominess, 160 gigabytes worth. That's 2 1/2 times the capacity of the roomiest iPod Touch, which is the star of the iPod family. Jobs didn't even mention the Classic in his keynote speech at the latest product launch.
Audiophiles have filled online forums with anguished laments. They're afraid the time is not too distant when the Classic will be discontinued, with the result that they'll be back to the bad old days of choosing what music to load onto their Touches (and inevitably choosing wrong). Even if the Classic remains on the market, they worry, can they be sure that Apple will upgrade it with the latest audio technology going into its glitzy siblings?
What's most interesting about these developments is what they tell us about the evolution of the iPod as a product and a business model. At first the device 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 then.
The balance began to shift after Apple opened the iTunes music store in 2003; within a week it had sold 1 million songs, validating the store's potential as a revenue source. As the store branched out into videos, TV shows and movies, the iPod's capacity steadily 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.
Apple offered several ways to fill this capacity. It upgraded the digital quality of songs in the iTunes store, doubling their average file size. It pushed more video content at customers — a 90-minute or two-hour Hollywood feature can easily take up more than a gigabyte on your iPod. It introduced a digital format called Apple Lossless, which produces near-CD quality files, but big ones, just the thing an audiophile would obsess over. A roughly one-hour jazz CD takes up 83 megabytes on your iPod in middling-quality compressed format, but 446 megs in Lossless. ("Mingus at Antibes" was my reference CD for this inquiry.)
Then came the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Apple acknowledges that sales of the high-capacity, music-only (or music-mostly) iPods, including the Shuffle and Nano, have been falling. But sales increased in dollar terms, because customers are shifting toward the pricier iPod Touch.
Apple loves that, because its new business model is to squeeze revenue from the iTouch, iPhone and iPad, all of which are designed to generate a constant stream of invoices to users for new apps, new movies, new content subscriptions. Net sales from the iTunes store and other content sources increased by $256 million, or 27%, in the third quarter. Except for the iPhone, the sales growth of which was explosive, the iTunes store was Apple's fastest-growing business segment in 2009.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Apple's configuring its consumer products any way it wishes. Even the company's most devoted customers have long since given up trying to goad it into fulfilling their wish lists on anything but its own schedule.
The iPod faithful can be forgiven for thinking that the device's original fans — those who want to carry all their music everywhere they go — is not as important to Apple as it used to be, as the iPod is plainly no longer chiefly a music device. The highest-capacity iPod Touch is 64 gigabytes. I'm no obsessive audiophile, but my music library is plenty bigger than that, and growing all the time.
Apple won't say why it hasn't brought out, say, a 128-GB iTouch to give music fans the combination of capacity and features many of them crave. Perhaps a high-capacity flash memory of the type that goes into the iTouch isn't available in sufficient quantity to allow an upgrade to 128 gigs. Or it might still be too expensive — the 64-gig iTouch retails for $399, so a bigger model might be unmarketable.
Apple may feel that its old audiophile market is now too tiny to worry about, and that in today's throwaway pop music culture no one keeps songs that are more than a few months old, so 64 gigs is more than enough for anybody. There are rumors that Apple is planning to offer a service holding all your music on its servers, so you won't need a lot of capacity in your pocket. Or maybe a bigger iTouch is just around the corner after all.
Forget about getting an answer from Apple. The PR rep I raised these issues with had clearly aced the company's training course in Studied Obtuseness, which I believe is required of all Apple flacks before they're let loose to deal with the media. She acted as if she couldn't understand my question about whether Apple was leaving the audiophile market underserved, and kept repeating that there's an iPod in the lineup for everyone.
How long will that be true? Online message boards teem with music fans panicking that their iPod will fail someday after Apple has killed off the Classic. Even the name itself suggests it's an antique, a term usually not associated with Apple products.
Some talk about stockpiling a few Classics in their basement so they'll always have a backup, like bottles of water and cans of tuna stowed in their earthquake room.
Obsessive, I know. But aren't these the people the original iPod was made for?
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.