The defining device of the portable music era is headed for history: RIP iPod

As it announced unexpected strong sales of its iPhone last week, Apple said it is killing off the music device that made it all possible: the iPod.

The renamed iPod Classic was discontinued in 2014 and last week it was the turn of the smaller iPod Nano and Shuffle to be dropped from Apple’s online store. They were the last of the music players that made Apple into the mobile titan it is today.

When it first emerged in 2001, the iPod was a game-changer. It transformed music consumption and started the process of combining all our separate gadget needs into one device. First Apple allowed us to rip our music to digital format (the good old MP3) and then transfer it to an iPod to transport around with us. Steve Jobs proclaimed a the 2001 that the iPod would give you “1,000 songs in your pocket”. That seems quaint now, especially the language originally used to describe it as the size of a box of cigarettes.

Just 16 years ago, it was back when cigarettes were still being mentioned in favourable terms and music was still something you copied onto a portable device, long before streaming became the platform du jour.

The early iPods solved the problem of navigating with a remarkable simple and just as efficient mechanism using a scroll-wheel. This alone was design genius. It was elegant and ease-to-use. It was Steve Jobs incarnate: four buttons and a way to scroll through music. It defined how we navigated our portable music back then, long before the thumb-scrolling of the iPhone and swipe-right right now.

Not long after that first iPod arrived, Apple released an iPod Mini, which also used the tiny hard drives used in laptops. The Nano replaced the Mini in 2005 – the first flash-based version of the music player – and was one of the greatest example’s of Job’s famous axiom: “If you don’t cannibalise yourself, someone else will”.

At the time, the Mini was the most successful MP3 player the world had ever seen, but it demonstrated Jobs ruthless sense of innovation. The Nano was even tinier by comparison and would introduce the ability to store photographs and contact details, the first rudimentary hints of the personal information management systems that would evolve into the digital assistant we know as the iPhone.

The Shuffle was another unexpected success, a tiny device with no screen, that shuffled the music you loaded on it. It wasn’t the same kind of game-changer, but it was one of Apple’s few attempts at a cheaper, entry-level device.

But both the Nano and the Shuffle, which were last updated in 2012 and 2010 respectively, were from the pre-smartphone era, before apps would become the defining characteristic. They were from an era when you ripped and converted your CD collection. Now streaming music is the new normal and old-school non-app iPods are just passé. This is especially true after Apple has gotten into the streaming business itself, having bought of Beats Music in 2014 for $3bn and introduced Apple Music in 2015.

At the original iPod launch, which was days before the fateful 9/11 attacks in 2001, Apple’s launch invitation called it “the unveiling of a breakthrough device”. The pre-hype was right. RIP iPod.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

Editor, columnist, strategist and speaker; Toby writes and speaks about Innovation. And Africa. Most eloquently about Innovation in Africa. Through a range of media, from newspapers to television and radio, he speaks regularly on the trends in technology and innovation; and where they are going.

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