Monday, 1 August 2016

How Can Apple Save The iPod?


Is it time for the device that kickstarted Apple's tech kingdom to be laid to rest, or is there still some life left?
The current Apple iPod lineup (Left to right: Shuffle, Nano, Touch)
The iPod has lost the magic that it had when Steve Jobs was CEO.
In October 2001, when the first iPod was unveiled, few people had expected that in just 3 years it would capture over 70% of the music player market. And back then in 2004, it's likely that no one would have expected the iPod to be in the state it is now in 2016: the group of seemingly unwanted children of Apple, not even warranting their own link on the banner of the Californian tech giant's own website.

And while Apple's other devices, such as the iPhone and the Mac lineup, have been receiving much boasted about yearly updates, the iPod range has been neglected. Until last July, the big brother, the iPod touch, hadn't been updated for 3 years. The iPod nano has stayed the same since 2012, with no sign of any upcoming changes. And the iPod shuffle, well, the current version is 6 years old, ancient by Apple's standards.

iPod sales from 2006-2014 (Statista)
Apple doesn't just go nuts and neglect a cash cow product- all of this is due to the fact that the iPod range has been declining in popularity for some years now. Sales have fallen to the extent that perhaps Apple now considers them negligible, and doesn't bother to report iPod sales in quarterly reports any more.

So, why have iPod sales fallen?

It's interesting to note that the peak of iPod sales in 2008 coincides with the introduction of the iPhone 3G in 2008. The immense popularity of the iPhone, and more broadly all smartphones, has undoubtedly been a root cause of the iPod's demise. The iPhone 3G offered pretty much all the media functionality of an iPod, plus the incredibly useful functions of a phone, presenting an ideal combination to those Apple's customers who could afford it. After all, why would you carry around a phone and an iPod with you, when you could carry something that does the job of both?

But still, iPod sales remained relatively stable for a few years after the iPhone, because it still had some advantages. For example, the iPod shuffle and nano appealed to those who wanted music while they were exercising, because they were far lighter and more convenient to carry than the lumpy iPhone. They were far cheaper, too, making it more ideal for people on tight budgets and parents looking to buy something for their kids.

However, in recent years the iPhone has narrowed, and overcome, many of these advantages and effectively cannibalised a lot of the iPod's sales. Only a stick man would consider the current iPhone 6S to be too heavy or inconvenient to carry on a morning jog. Apple's recent strategy of selling upgraded versions of older generation iPhones as cheaper variants means that while they are still quite pricey, they are far more accessible than the iPhone of 7 or 8 years ago.

It's not just iPhones that have killed iPod sales, but smartphones in general. We have experienced a fascinating evolution as a society, becoming people who want things to be multifunctional. For example, people nowadays are not happy with a basic car that just does the job of travelling. We want massage seats, heated cupholders, umbrellas in the doors (yes, really a thing). It's this desire for multi, not uni, functional objects that have manifested in things like fridges that play music (again, this is a thing), and in the ever increasing list of things our smartphones can do.

Give a 5 year old today an iPod shuffle, and they will see virtually no appeal in it. There's no screen, just some buttons and no function other than to play music. You can't even chose which song to play, for it is eternally stuck in shuffle mode, thus rendering shuffle users eternally pressing the skip button to find the track they want.

An iPod nano has a touch screen, yes, but again, it bests today's smartphones in few areas, if any.

Both of these devices lack wi-fi, too- meaning the millions who make use of music streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify will be left unwelcomed on these devices.

Only the iPod touch remains of some appeal to our ever more demanding tastes- but again, in a world where most people are used to carrying one device that can do everything, and phones are so important, why would an iPod touch appeal to anyone over the age of 15?

So, what should Apple do about it?

Well, the iPod shuffle would be a firm candidate for the next death of the iPod family. It no longer fits in with the rest of Apple's lineup, and due to the strengths of other devices on the market, the shuffle is now in an incredibly small niche of insect-sized people and those who are too lazy to carry a 130 gram phone. Those who may find appeal in the low price of the shuffle can, and do, easily find better iPod touch-style alternatives from competitors for the same price.

The iPod nano is not as obsolete. It is far more user-friendly than the shuffle when it comes to music, and more versatile when it comes to features. The smaller form factor remains one advantage it holds over a smartphone, but still- it's likely that even a second-hand iPod touch bought for the same £129 price will appeal more to buyers, given things like its access to the massive world of apps and camera.

If Apple wants to make something of the iPod nano, it could try to take inspiration from the Apple Watch and change the direction of the nano to be something like an Apple Watch you can keep in your pocket. This means opening the nano to the Apple Watch app environment, and adding extra hardware features such as a heartbeat sensor.

So the iPod nano could be seeing its end, but there remains some potential for Apple to evolve the product into something more up to date and coherent with the rest of its lineup.

Could the iPod touch represent the single future of the
iPod lineup?
While the iPod touch may not be currently setting the tech world on fire, it remains the best selling iPod. But what matters even more than this is the fact that it is probably the most popular gateway to the Apple lineup, especially when it comes to teens and pre-teens. The iPod touch is that present a parent might give to their kid for their 12th birthday, because it shares so many features with the iPhone, other than the massive price tag. You can play games, take photos, text (thanks to iMessage) on an iPod, which is pretty much all a kid wants these days, right?

Then, once the 12 year old becomes a 15 or 16 or 17 year old, and the iPod touch is getting old, the time comes around to get a phone. Having been integrated into the iOS ecosystem over the past years, it's likely that they will want a phone they can identify with immediately- likely to be an iPhone. This then extends into buying a Mac for college, an Apple Watch to pair with the iPhone, and so on. Apple thus arguably benefits far more from the possibilities an iPod touch opens up than the sales of the device itself, so the iPod touch should remain and continue serving this role.

If the iPod touch is chosen to be the last iPod standing, rebranding it as simply the 'iPod' may be a wise move. Being a touchscreen device is no longer worthy of note as it was almost a decade ago, and the rebranding will represent the type of streamlining, simplification that Apple is so well known for. It may even add a nostalgic touch for those who were around for the launch of the original iPod.

Something must happen with the iPod lineup- the past few years haven't been exactly disastrous, but they have lacked the kind of success that Apple is used to with all their other products. Apple must decide whether it wants to revive the iPod that we all know and love, or chop off this appendix of the Apple body. 
Mohammad Lone Editor