October 3, 2011 at 12:41 pm

The iPod Changed Computing Forever. Now It Will Disappear.

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Ten years ago this month, in a small-ish theater at Apple Computer headquarters at One Infinite Loop, I saw Steve Jobs unveil the iPod. On November 2, 2001, I wrote, “The iPod is revolutionary in a number of ways, and its descendants will replace the PC.”

I think I was right, as we’re starting to see now with the widespread adoption of iPhone-inspired smartphones and tablets.

Part of the iPod reinventing computing is that the iPod itself will disappear into those new computers, which is what we’re about to see. First, “iPod” became an app on the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad. On Tuesday, Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook will reportedly unveil new iPhones and iPod Touches running iOS 5 linked to iCloud storage accounts (5GB for free, more for $) — and could phase out the iPod Classic entirely, as well as the word “iPod” itself.

steve jobs first ipod

Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds aloft the first iPod at its 2001 debut (still frame courtesy of Apple).

It’s foolhardy to pretend to know anything for sure about any product announcement before it happens (not that it stops many of us in the tech press from doing so). Sure, Apple could keep the traditional iPod around in some form after tomorrow, but even if so, its days are numbered for reasons including the following:

  • Apple’s iOS devices can download music from Apple’s other big idea for this season, iCloud, and will integrate automatically with iCloud with tomorrow’s arrival of iOS 5 (read more about what that means for music fans);
  • unlike the traditional iPod, those connected devices can play subscription content and music in storage lockers without visibly enforcing DRM;
  • they can share listening activity in real-time on Facebook and elsewhere;
  • they also let users install (almost) whatever software and services they want, not to mention hundreds of thousands of other apps, all of which make Apple more money than when someone buys an iPod and fills it with ripped CDs, downloads from MP3 blogs, and whatever they’ve grabbed from file-sharing networks.

Having watched digital music closely for over 13 years, I boil it down to two main events:

First, music turned into 1s and 0s.

That spawned CD rippers, the MP3, software music players, hardware music players (like, eventually, the iPod), P2P file sharing, anti-piracy lawsuits, and web radio.

Second, music players themselves turned into 1s and 0s.

This led to the creation of a wild variety of apps running on connected devices (check out our roundup of every iOS car music player, as just one example), and allowed subscription services such as Spotify to operate without forcing honest users to deal with onerous DRM (digital rights management) technology.

That’s it. In the grand historical scheme of digital music, only these two things have happened, and the second one is ongoing.

Apple’s strategy has been cagey throughout this process. It has continued selling hardware iPods and digital downloads on one flank and hawked smartphones, “smart players” like the iPod Touch, and tablets on the other, all the while charging developers 30 percent of every app purchase and subscription sign-up. Now, the Tim Cook-helmed Apple is getting on-board with the second phase of the digital music revolution, having taken its sweet time about it – just like it did with the first iPod.

Tomorrow, Apple, the 500-pound gorilla of digital music, will throw its weight behind iCloud and connected iOS devices and could chuck the traditional iPod out so that all of its iPod-descended devices can run apps and connect to iCloud. Apple wasn’t close to the first company to sell an MP3 player, but it outlasted and outsold the competition all the way to this season’s launch of iOS 5 and iCloud. And with that, Apple leaves the iPod  mentality (if not the device itself) behind to join more fully the second phase of the digital music revolution.

Hey, ten years isn’t a bad run — and really, the iPod’s demise follows the big historical arc from physical music to 1s and 0s, which first transformed music and is now transforming the music player.

Stay tuned; we’ll have more analysis of the effect of iOS 5 and Apple’s other announcements on digital music starting tomorrow.

  • Han Rasmussen

    Apple will pry my dedicated music player out of my cold, dead hands. I have a smartphone, I have a computer, I don’t want an MP3 player to do anything but play mp3s. Other functionality is already available on my other devices, I have a music player because I need it to play music. I like my simple, easy to use physical interface, I don’t want apps or a touchscreen, I just want it to do the job I bought it for.

    The smaller flash-based iPods are made redundant by the iPhone, as is the iTouch, but the large capacity HDD-based iPod Classic still has a use as a hardcore music-only device. That, I suppose, is why they didn’t discontinue them after all despite the predictions.