Once upon a time, new iPods were the event for Apple. Yesterday, Apple talked iPods for all of 10 minutes. No radical new features. No surprises. If yesterday was any indication, all iPods—not just the Classic—have nearly reached the end of their innovation cycle.
Historically speaking, media player crazes tend to only last a decade or so, trailing the rise and fall of their formats by a few years. The Walkman had its heyday from the early 80s to the early 90s. The Discman was beloved from the early '90s to the early '00s. And since 2001, the iPod enjoyed its reign as a juggernaut. But we're slowly moving out of an era where we hoard thousands and thousands of media files on our own devices. We have the cloud. But for portable devices, that requires mobile internet. iPods can't give us mobile internet.
The iPod will never regain its status as a mainstream object of lust. We've moved on. We all have smarter phones. Storage capacity is less of a concern than ever thanks to the slightly ominous "cloud." We have our devices loaded up with our favorite streaming video and music services, ready to pipe any song we could possibly want to listen to into our ears at a moment's notice. Batteries last all day. And how much smaller or thinner do any of these devices need to be? Simply put, there's no benefit to carrying a second dedicated device around for day-to-day use anymore.
How does the iPod stay alive in the face of obsolesence?
Apple should embrace the niche crowds. There will always be separate, but significant blocs of people who require specialty devices. Instead of making a non-essential device that appeals to everyone, it should make essential devices that will only appeal to some.
People are active. While possible, going out and using your smartphone as a music player while running/snowboarding/planking isn't optimal. It's heavy. It could break. It's not waterproof. It could get lost. The improved Nike+ functionality on the iPod nano was a step in the right direction. But how about a mil-spec iPod nano that's virtually indestructible? Waterproof, dustproof, shockproof. And maybe toss in a small, quality video camera that can record someone's extreme exploits.
People like games. Especially kids, who won't be getting smartphones anytime soon (at least I hope not). Apple has tried to keep its gaming apps as universal as possible, which means it's shied away from games with intense hardware control requirements. (Consider the lack of true controller peripherals that plug into iPhones and iPod touches. Do you really think nobody's pitched Apple on them, or tried to make one that's Apple-certified? To be less obtuse: People have.) But maybe it should remake the iPod touch as a truer gaming device with some specialty hardware features meant to enhance gameplay. An attachable slideout gamepad. A more beefed up GPU. Create a special section of the app store for games that use the device's unique capabilities. Put some effort into Game Center. And make it cheap. I bet if Apple really tried, it could create a true Nintendo 3DS killer (granted, that's not terribly difficult).
People are nerds. Audiophiles bemoan the internal audio components of the iPod. Their FLAC rips fill up their devices in a hurry (what, you think they would be caught dead streaming?). They want the iPod Pro. Cram that thing full of industry-grade components that can make their thousand dollar headphones sing. Give them more flash storage than they know what to do with. Give them advanced EQ capabilities. And price is a non-issue. These are people who will sink a small fortune into their gear for aural pleasure.
And yes, I know that appealing to a niche, high-end crowd isn't the Apple way at all anymore—just look at what it did do to its pro apps, like Final Cut Pro X. Whether anyone really wants to admit it or not, it's a new era at Apple.
The iPod has a future if Apple really wants it to have one. It may not be the singular, glamourous social position it once held, but it would hardly exist as a has-been product either. I hope that Apple embraces such an idea, though I suspect the only kind of embrace the iPod's going to get is the same one that Apple extends to their more seasoned products, like the Mac Pro.