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Apple’s iPod: Will It Talk?

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Though Microsoft is now downplaying reports that it is working on a music store and portable music player to rival Apple's iPod, it is no secret that Apple faces an uphill climb. As the distant market leader, it faces an array of challengers all determined to do one thing: knock Apple out of first place. In addition, the near-ubiquity of the iPod, combined with how long the product has been shipping, means that many people have now heard of someone somewhere having a problem with their iPod, and the frequency of those stories will only increase with time.

What can Apple do to continue to press forward and ensure that people looking to buy the next generation of player again choose an iPod? How can they add new features people want without compromising the simplicity and elegance that is their trademark?

The First Generation iPod debuted October 23, 2001. It was marketed with the tagline "Put 1,000 songs in your pocket," and was an instant success. Apple sold 125,000 iPods by the end of the year, even though the devices only worked with Macintosh computers. It had a 5GB capacity.

In March, 2002, Apple released a 10GB iPod, and now you could "put 2,000 songs in your pocket."

On July 17, 2002, Apple released the Second Generation iPod. Now with a 20GB capacity, the device worked with both Windows and Macintosh computers, though Windows users had to use MusicMatch Jukebox, and iTunes for Windows had not yet been developed. Most importantly, the 2G iPod was the first to eliminate the scroll wheel.

The 1G iPod had wheels that physically turned, and like all moving parts, that meant problems. My own 10GB iPod scrolls a little roughly, but it still works. Others weren't so fortunate. With the 2G iPod came a touch-sensitive "wheel" that didn't actually move at all.

Apple announces the Third Generation iPod on April 28, 2003. The new device came in 10GB, 15GB, and 30GB models, and were smaller, lighter, and had a different button layout and adaptor. More importantly, iTunes 4, released that same day, also featured the debut of the iTunes Music Store.

Frankly, it's hard to believe that it took so long. It's easy to forget that Apple shipped hundreds of thousands of iPods — and three popular versions of iTunes — without even the iTMS behind it. They crossed the million iPod mark in June 2003, but iTunes still wasn't available for Windows.

On September 8, 2003, iPods with larger capacities became available: 20GB and 40GB, or "up to 10,000 songs in your pocket." Only eight times larger than the original iPod, the number of songs has increased ten-fold?

On October 16, 2003, the iPod finally reached its full potential as Apple released iTunes for Windows. While the iTMS had sold 13 million songs to Mac users, Apple and Pepsi began a new 100 million song promotion to highlight the fact that the sky was now the limit.

Apple made it difficult to track the evolution of the iPod on January 6, 2004, when they announced a completely new product: the iPod mini. While they had been expected to compete with small-capacity Flash-based players, the mini used a hard drive, giving it 4GB capacity. Based on the new math, this now promised "1,000 songs in your pocket," just as the 5GB iPod had a little over two years prior. The new mini also featured a new style of "scroll wheel" in which the buttons that had previously wandered all over the device from generation to generation were now placed within the wheel itself. The new "click wheel" was an indicator of what we could expect from the next generation of iPod due later in the year. In fact, the iPod mini has now disappeared, as the "full-size" iPod gets smaller with every generation.

The Fourth Generation iPod was announced on July 19, 2004, and featured the same "click wheel" design as the iPod mini. It was also smaller, with a more compact overall design, and featured improved battery life. The iPod kept the 20GB and 40GB capacities.

Also in 2004, Apple released another new product: iPod Photo. On October 26, nearly three years exactly after the debut of the original iPod, the iPod Photo brought a color screen into the family. It was available in 40GB and 60GB. For a while, the only way to get an iPod with 60GB was to buy the iPod Photo, which came with a price penalty tied to the color screen. The iPod Photo capabilities were folded into the regular iPod on June 28, 2005.

On January 11, 2005, Apple introduced yet another new product, the iPod shuffle. Finally entering the flash-memory player market, they did so with a device that has no screen and very few options.

The iPod nano was introduced on September 7, 2005, in 2GB and 4GB capacities with a very compact design. The iPod nano also featured a color screen, like the regular iPod.

The Fifth Generation of iPod came on October 12, 2005, and brought video to that color screen for the first time. While smaller than the previous full-size iPods, it featured 30GB or 60GB capacity and a 2.5" color screen capable of displaying full-motion video.

Status Quo
That's where we are now. There is the iPod shuffle, at 512MB and 1GB, with no screen at all. There is the iPod nano, at 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB, with a very small screen. Then there is the 5G iPod, at 30GB and 60GB, with a full-color 2.5" screen and video capabilities.

iPod Timeline

Where will Apple go next?

Future Options
Each generation has gotten smaller, and over time capacities have increased. Other than that, the interface improvements are hard to predict. Apple seems happy now with the click-wheel design, which enables people to accomplish anything at all without removing their thumb from the iPod. Can that navigation system be improved on?

Some have suggested a touch-screen, but I'm skeptical. The scroll wheel is an iPod signature, so that even the super-simple iPod shuffle mimics it in appearance if not function. A touch-screen is useful for products where many features must all be available at once, but the iPod eschews that approach for simplicity. A touch-screen would also enable the screen to grow to the entire size of the iPod — or the iPod to shrink to the size of the screen — but it seems a little fantastic to me.

Instead of a touch screen, what about voice feedback? My experience with the iPod shuffle has led me to think that simple auditory feedback would really be all that product needed to be really fantastic, and if that's true for the iPod shuffle, why not for the iPod as well? It's a beautiful color screen, but it's not something you want to look at while driving, or jogging. Instead, you could scroll through menu items and have each menu item read to you in your earbud, including Artists, Album Titles, and Song Titles. There's even a patent which lends support to this idea, though it's an old one.

Apple has so far strenuously resisted adding new features that would benefit only a limited subset of users, or would add complexity. If you want FM reception, that's an add-on. If you want voice recording, that's an add-on. That emphasis on add-on products has spurred an industry, and there are now thousands of add-on products for the iPod. As some users push for things like Bluetooth wireless networking, I expect those to remain confined to add-on products as well.

The beautiful color screen has so far been limited to 2.5", and a very ordinary 1.33:1 almost-square aspect ratio. I expect that screen to change to a widescreen 1.66:1 presentation at some point, even if that means turning the iPod sideways. That may mean a longer iPod, but it might still seem smaller if the iPod continues to get thinner.

Note: An earlier version of this article stated that Jonathan Ive was no longer designing for Apple, which is not the case. The author apologizes for the mistake.

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  • Rey

    “One challenge for Apple is that Jonathan Ive has left, and many watchers — including me — are now watching to see if Apple can continue to deliver what the people want without Mr. Ive at the helm.”

    Since when did Jonathan Ive leave Apple? Is there a link to a story stating that he has left the company?

  • Rey, you’re absolutely right. I still have a memory of Ive doing something at Apple, or announcing his plan to do something at Apple involving leaving the iPod team, but I can’t find any source for it, so apparently it was a fever-dream.

    It was the only item in the story for which I relied solely on my (obviously faulty) memory; all else was sourced, primarily from Apple press releases (to get the dates right).

    I’m sorry for the grotesque mistake, and I’ll update the article later today.

  • ahh. iPods are effing rad, I’m doing a project on them for a class. and this really helps for what I need to get a good grade. Props :]

    Hmm, but I am wondering, if there’s any more pictures of them.