This past week Apple made public the decision that seemed inevitable: the discontinuation of the iPod nano and iPod Shuffle. Both were the only Apple devices left in the product lineup that required the use of iTunes and also the only stand-alone devices that could not connect to the internet (hence their reliance on the longtime Mac application). As Apple shifts to an Apple Music-only future, we should start waving good-bye to iTunes and the task of music management.
A Look Back
The iPod Shuffle and nano were two products that filled a couple of niches for users and in Apple’s product lineup. The Shuffle was the lowest price point iPod device, opening up the world of the iTunes music store, which at the time was a huge business for Apple and the main revenue stream from iPod sales. It was also the smallest, lightest iPod which made it great for running or any other physical activity. The Shuffle was a no-fuss, no-gimmick entry to the Apple iTunes ecosystem.
The iPod nano represented something more. It was the heir apparent to the iPod mini’s position in the lineup as the lighter, less expensive iPod. The nano used flash-based storage which made it ultra-light, battery-efficient, and ridiculously thin. The click-wheel was still intact and so was the familiar iPod UI, as well as a 30-pin USB connector, making it a standard iPod experience without the bulk. The storage capacity paired with the price-point made it an attractive buy for most users.
The two devices found their place in my heart pretty quickly. The second-generation iPod nano (silver) was my first ever iPod. It was leaps and bounds better than any music player I had had before. My Archos JukeBox looked like a toaster in comparison.
My Sony MiniDisc player couldn’t hold a charge longer than 40 minutes and I had to continuously burn MP3s to Mini-Discs. This thin little device smaller than a granola bar not only sounded fantastic, but it slipped into my pocket easily, boasted a near all-day battery, and could play music I bought on iTunes as well as those ripped from CDs. The click-wheel was smooth and so was the all-aluminum body. It felt so perfect in my hand. I even purchased the Nike+iPod accessory that went into my shoe to measure my runs. How cool for 2006!
The iPod Shuffle 3rd generation (black) was my first Shuffle and my favorite. This was kind of the oddity of the Shuffle line. After the “thumb drive” form factor, came this:
A super-tiny tab of anodized aluminum no larger than a stick of gum. It had a clip for attaching to your shirt or pants and had no buttons: just a three-way switch for PLAY IN ORDER – SHUFFLE – OFF. Simple. Voice-over controls assisted with the lack of screen for querying song titles, artists, etc. This was the introduction of play controls on the iPod headphones; something that is on virtually every headphone set currently produced. Voice controls with the new headphone controls brought a bit of a learning curve to the usually easy-to-use iPod world, but once the basics were understood they were hard to forget and a joy to use.
A Pure Music Experience
I admire this version of the iPod Shuffle because it represents a company willing to take a risk on a fairly well-established product. At the time of its launch, the very good second-generation Shuffle design had cemented itself in the lineup and would eventually return in a similar design for the fourth-generation Shuffle and beyond. Even more importantly though, I admire this third-generation design because the huge risk Apple took putting the iPod brand on something that both looked and functioned so radically different. No on-device controls but the three-way switch. At times, it felt like it might have been too small and too light; like having nothing connected on the end of your headphones. Apple was asking existing/previous iPod users to learn an entirely new way of using iPod but also asking brand new iPod users to learn something very un-iPod-like.
The risk of asking so much of an entry-level device seems fairly large. At the lowest-end of the price spectrum this would be a lot user’s first taste of what iPod is all about – and it was nothing like the rest of the lineup. At first glance, this seems crazy. Logically, you’d want the entry-level device of a product line-up to be the essence of the product line; just the basics, and then add features and bells and whistles as you move up in price-point. But, I argue, that the iPod Shuffle, particularly the 3rd generation, exemplifies and objectifies the spirit of iPod in it’s purest form, because it is just music. No buttons. No color display. No photo viewing. No video. Just music listening. Control with your voice or small buttons on your headphones. Wait for the next song to come up or skip it, or shuffle. No browsing through artists or sorting by album. Upload songs via iTunes and go on your way. Pure. As close as the user could get to the music.
The End of i
Important to note is that the `i’ prefix is slowly being killed off with each new product entry in the post-Jobs era. It has been attached to almost every Apple product since the original iMac but is not being used in new Apple products and services. It is Apple Watch, not iWatch; Apple Music, not iMusic; HomePod, not iSpeaker. The oft-copied prefix indeed represents Apple’s past; the last generation. Apple is keeping the `Pod’ moniker though as evidenced by the AirPods wireless earbud headphones and the yet-to-be-released smart speaker, HomePod. We can probably expect `Pod’ to stick around just like `Mac’ has even after the stoppage of the full-length `Macintosh’ moniker in product names. It is a delicate balance of turning the page and nodding to heritage which that Apple generally tries to strike. It will be interesting to see how they handle `iPhone’ in a post-`i’ world.
The end of the Shuffle and nano also signals the end of iTunes. Apple is growing it’s streaming service, Apple Music. It is apparent that this is how users are choosing to consume their music in a smartphone-centric world. Music listeners no longer care to or find the need to manage their own locally-stored library of music and sync tracks to a device. With unlimited data plans and ubiquitous Wi-Fi, smartphones enable a variety of subscription services to exist that can provide users with unlimited music for a reasonable monthly fee – and with good enough audio quality. The current Apple devices do this: iPhone, iPod Touch with Wi-Fi, and iPad. Apple Music is also a default app installed with iOS and macOS. It is as much of a cataloging and music playback application as it is a destination for music discovery: radio shows hosted by major artists, up-and-coming artists interviewed daily, and curated playlists from real-life humans that know the intangibles of music and the layers of culture that envelop it. Apple Music is positioned not just as an app and service, but a service with a pulse; a thriving space – not just a static library of songs.
From a business perspective, the iPod nano and Shuffle were dead weight and dead-end devices. The hardware most likely had decent profit margins since it was based on very mature technology and software. However, Apple makes money not just in the sale of hardware but on goods and services offered via hardware throughout its lifetime of use. The App Store is what makes the iPhone so profitable. Since the Shuffle and nano cannot utilize the App Store, the only revenue stream that these now-dead devices provided was the hardware profit margin and iTunes sales. And, as mentioned above, iTunes use and revenue has declined steadily over the years as more users adopt streaming services as their preferred way of consuming music and video.
No longer having to upkeep a separate branch of software to run these devices is a positive side-effect for Apple. Now, all products run on iOS, macOS, or some fork of iOS. Mac is obviously macOS. iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch are all iOS. Apple TV is tvOS which is a variant of iOS. Apple Watch runs watchOS, which is also based on iOS. Resources that were once used to update the nano and Shuffle software can now be streamlined and rolled into the maintenance and development of iOS or macOS.
Apple may have killed two of my most beloved devices, but if they are a forward-looking company, this is the right decision. Philosophically, the Shuffle and nano no longer fit in the current product map of Apple. They are not “connected” in any sense of the word; not to the rest of the Apple products in the ecosystem and not to the Internet. They are terminal devices. Ending them helps streamline resources used for maintenance and development as well as streamline the product offerings. While the iPod nano offered a “diet” version of the original iPod, the Shuffle offered the heart and soul of iPod. It did what Apple Music is attempting to do now: bring the user as close as possible to the music.