Death of a musical legend, the Apple iPod

  • Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 29, 2015 13:18 IST

Let’s do two things right at the start.

One: Let me not pussyfoot around the headline of the column. It’s an obviously melodramatic ruse to bring in as many people as possible to read my column this week, including those that never touch a techie column even with a 10-foot barge pole.

The music legend that has passed away (or is about to) is the Apple iPod. If you came here expecting to read about some legendary musician or singer, the ruse worked. But instead of going away now, why not stay? You’ve already read 1/5th of the column

: This is not going to be a nostalgic, weepy reminiscence of the ‘good old days’ at all. The iPod wasn’t the first portable digital music player but it changed the world of music forever.

It was the first standalone device that was easy to use and could store a serious number of songs.

Unveiling the first one (5GB) in 2001 – it could store about a 1000 songs – Steve Jobs called it a "breakthrough digital device" and said, "For most people, it’s their entire music library". Sales were off the charts.

At one point, nearly one third of Apple’s revenue came from iPods and about 350 million iPods have sold since then.

But that was then. Sales have declined in each quarter for the past many years and 2014 was reportedly the worst year for iPod sales. Thus Apple did what many have been expecting.

It quietly removed the iPod from the home page of its web site. For the first time in 13 years there is no iPod tab there anymore. The iPod Classic was discontinued last year. And these two events are a sure shot harbinger of the death of the iPod.

Who killed the iPod?

But like I said, this isn’t going to be a nostalgia column. This is about exploring the future. The death of the iPod was expected. In fact, it lasted for a few years more than most predictions.

Tony Fadell, one of the main people behind the launch of Apple’s iPod has publicly said that in 2004 itself, they were quite sure that it was inevitable that it would die. The only question was: what would kill it? Many factors came together to make sure it did.

Outsmarting the iPod

Obviously, smartphones were the first to dent the seemingly impregnable world of iPods. When an iPhone has as much storage as an iPod, then a dedicated music player for the same purpose seems like an overkill.

The fact that a cheap android phone (with a microSD card slot) also makes for an economic and easy-to-use portable music player added to lowering iPod sales.

Then came the entire music streaming business. Streaming any song in the entire world down to your phone within seconds completely nullified the whole idea of iPod storage and the number of songs in your collection.

The ‘celestial jukebox in the sky’ could pull any song you wanted and needed. Why then, would anyone go through the drudgery and number of steps required for using the bloated iTunes?

The new age of music players

The future of music is looking even more interesting now. You expect better quality, high definition sound, better fidelity – all the things that got killed with the iPod and other mp3 players.

New standalone dedicated players like FiiO, the Toblerone-shaped Pono and the Sony NWZ-ZX1 are winning the market by playing music exactly as it was created, minus the downgrading that most digital music went through. Audiophiles swear by these, and as prices will come down, more people will use them and realise the sacrifices they’ve made for the convenience of using an iPod.

HD music players may become the next big thing. And speaking of next big things, music streaming may just be going through a complete metamorphosis. New technology may facilitate playing music based on your mood.

Yes, that means tech that senses your moods and states of mind, algorithms that determine what kind of music would be best for you to listen to, and software that downloads and plays it for you. With no intervention from you at all.

What’s in store next?

To all those that will accuse me of being very unsentimental and matter-of-fact about the demise of the iPod: let’s keep things in perspective. The success of the iPod itself led to the demise of many things.

The iPod killed CDs. And CDs killed audio tapes. And the audio tapes contributed to the dramatic death of the vinyl records! The march of technology will, and must, carry on.

In terms of music, we have always come to better results. At the end, music will always be about the feeling it evokes, how it can make us feel loved again, make memories come alive, instill a sense of euphoria within our heart. It’s music that will always be magical, and not the device we play it on.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, June 28
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