The iPod's legacy: How Apple's music player reshuffled its future

The iPod served as a bridge between Apple as a PC maker mounting a comeback to purveyor of the world's strongest ecosystem spanning hardware, software and services. Its influence can still be seen in the iPhone and what comes after it.

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CNET

The iPod, as most of the world understood it, is no more. The discontinuation of the iPod nano and iPod shuffle represented a second fall for the pioneering music player, which saw its original first form factor disappear when Apple retired the hard drive-based iPod classic. But while a product in Apple's device family still bears the name iPod, it is one in name only even as it plays music. If brands reflected accurate descriptions, the product would be the "iPhone Wi-Fi," not the "iPod touch."

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While the iMac marked the beginning of Apple's turnaround, the iPod represented the company's first successful move beyond the PC. It paved the way for us to think of Apple not just as a computer company or even an electronics company, but an ecosystem company.

The transition from the first iPods to the last ones has spawned many paradoxes. The iPod will likely go down as the last device that relied on the PC as the center of its world in a syncing paradigm that borrowed from the Palm Pilot. It represented both the peak and decline of Apple's digital hub strategy for the Mac. While the original iPod did nothing but play music, the iPod touch is a jack of all apps.

And while the original iPod, which predated the iTunes Store, relied on your existing music, Apple now drives a subscription service that does away with the purchase of the individual tracks that was the iTunes Store's hallmark. While the iPod nano and shuffle were in decline for many years, the lack of compatibility with Apple Music became the final nail in their coffin. Apple could have brought them into the fold, but the Apple Watch is now its option for a those who want something smaller than an iPhone accompanying their runs.

Indeed, thinking back to the champions of task-driven portable electronics before the rise of smartphones, Garmin still makes portable navigation devices and Canon and Sony still make portable cameras and camcorders even if the former have had to differentiate with features such as larger sensors and longer zooms. But while Amazon and eBay offer no shortage of nominally branded Chinese MP3 players, the last major brand from the iPod's heyday to release a digital music player space was SanDisk, which was acquired by Western Digital last year. Take heart, Zune. It wasn't you.

In terms of revenue, Apple has become an iPhone company. But while the iPhone represented a completely different product category, it still had ties to the iPod -- from labeling the music app after its predecessor to the trademark white earbuds (and now AirPods). The iPhone itself represented an Apple redo after the company tried to portray its fleeting phone partnership with Motorola for the ROKR. At the introduction of that feature phone, Steve Jobs referred to the device as the "iTunes phone" and compared it favorably to the first iPod shuffle.

The iPod touch may have lost most of its association with music, but music-playing pods have not completely left Apple's world. The company's entry into the smart speaker space with HomePod recalls the kind of platform-free simplicity for which he iPod was known. Of course, the HomePod, like many of Apple's devices, can reach well beyond the local storage that the nano and shuffle limited. What began as a thousand songs in your pocket has become virtually any song anywhere.

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