The death of the iPod has been a long time coming. Somehow it’s been eight years since Apple discontinued the iconic iPod classic. Nonetheless, this week’s news that Apple is discontinuing its latest iPod touch is significant: it officially marks the end of a product that has spanned two decades of success for the company.
Much has been written about how the iPod changed Apple’s fortunes, transforming the company from an influential but niche computer maker into one of the largest companies in the world. The impact of the iPod on the music industry speaks for itself at this point. The device slowly but surely ended the CD’s reign and transported people into a world where they could buy just a handful of songs from an album instead of paying $15 for the whole thing on a plastic disc.
That’s probably why the death of the iPod brand doesn’t feel all that remarkable, despite being an iPod early adopter who quickly went all-in on Apple’s ecosystem. It was inevitable that Apple would eventually stop selling the iPod touch, just as the end of the iPod classic in 2014 felt overdue.
That’s probably because both consumer technology and the music industry have long since moved away from the iPod. It’s no exaggeration to say that the iPod turned the tide of both Apple and the record industry on its head—but we’ve since witnessed another seismic shift that made the iPod seem almost as old-fashioned as the compact disc.
The iPod has been responsible for several major changes in the way music is consumed. In the 2000s, CD sales began to decline as more and more people began buying music through digital storefronts like the iTunes Music Store. There you could get an album for $10 or a single song for $1, a significant discount over CDs at the time. And while many people still bought entire albums, decoupling songs from the record brought custom mix CDs and playlists to the forefront of how people listened to music. The iPod and iTunes Store ended the romance (and burden) of a physical music library and gave listeners more freedom in how they bought and listened to music.
But in 2022, the music industry has seen a second upheaval. For many, the concept of owning music at all is obsolete. Spotify, Apple Music and the like have completely moved us to a place where we pay to access — to a catalog of about 90 million songs — not to own it. The idea of the album is even less important today than it was in the days of the iPod, as the streaming services have compiled playlists for us based on our listening history and what’s popular. Apple, Spotify and their competitors are now de facto DJs, guiding listeners to new music just as radio DJs did for decades.
A big part of Steve Jobs’ pitch for the iTunes Store was that it was a response to piracy and a way for music makers to get paid. The rationale was that the store would offer a vastly improved experience dealing with sketchy piracy apps, so people wouldn’t mind paying a few bucks here and there to download songs, thus putting money in the artists’ pockets to stick.
In the streaming age, however, debate rages on about the fairness of music streaming payments to artists and songwriters. While the iTunes Store was the first place Apple rolled out its controversial 30 percent share, there’s been mounting excitement in recent years about how Spotify is breaking down artist payments into fractions of a cent per stream. Musicians have often made more money from touring and merchandise sales than from album sales, and now that most people are streaming music rather than buying music, that gap has widened even further. (Not to mention how many of hit artists have made touring revenue since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Just as the music industry has evolved since its iPod-driven transformation in the 2000s, the consumer tech industry no longer resembles one where the iPod dominated. iPod was designed to be a device that does one thing well: play your music and podcast library. Sure, it’s taken on other roles over the years (notably viewing your photos and playing videos), but music has always been its reason for being.
A number of other single-purpose devices flourished around the same time. Amazon introduced the first Kindle in 2007, digital cameras went mainstream over the decade, and the Flip Video camera briefly took the spotlight, to name a few. But the modern smartphone that Apple itself introduced with the iPhone has largely eliminated the need for a dedicated music player, let alone most other purpose-built gadgets. We are now 15 years into an era of convergence where the smartphone is the most versatile and essential device we carry.
It’s no coincidence that the last iPod sold by Apple was the iPod touch, a device that’s basically an iPhone without a phone. For years it was a good option for kids or people who couldn’t afford an iPhone, but giving kids a phone is no longer the taboo it used to be, while monthly payment plans mean more people can afford it. It’s not clear who the iPod touch was intended for in 2022.
Apple may be unplugging the iPod now, but the world moved on years ago. We’re past the point where those of us who get nostalgic about the iPod can be considered youthful; If the rise of the iPad was a formative experience for you, you’re probably an older millennial at best. I’m not saying any of this to downplay the importance of the iPod. On the contrary, looking back at how far we’ve come over the past 20 years shows just how transformative the iPod has been for music and technology.
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