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Is Apple tuning out audiophiles?

By failing to upgrade the iPod Classic, the tech giant seems to have left in the lurch the customers who made the music player a huge success.

September 21, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

It seems to be a law of nature that, just like toothpaste and government tax codes, great consumer technologies eventually become so overgrown with options or "improvements" that the original versions are indiscernible.

Microsoft has Word, its flagship word-processing program, which is so encrusted today with tools and features of less-than-universal utility that figuring out how to type a simple paragraph can take hours of consultation with the Help feature.

Apple has the iPod.

The original iPod, introduced by Steve Jobs in October 2001, was a marvel of elegant design. The capacity of the $399 product was 5 gigabytes, enough to accommodate 1,000 songs at the crude standards of data compression of the time.

Jobs pitched the device as a breakthrough "that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go." That was a major source of its appeal. Travelers in the pre-iPod era had to sit down before leaving home and choose a selection of CDs or cassette tapes to pack with their portable players or Sony Walkmen — only to discover, inevitably, that the one CD they really wanted to listen to was still in the pile back home.

It's hard to avoid the feeling now that Apple has abandoned that principle — and in the process left in the lurch the very customers who helped make the iPod a millennial success. I'm talking about audiophiles, or even garden-variety music lovers with large digital libraries.

When Apple announced the latest upgrades to its expanded iPod line this month, the one iPod that didn't get a wash and brush-up was the only one that still offers enough capacity to hold a serious music lover's entire library.

That one is now designated the iPod Classic, and it's treated as the stepchild of the line. It doesn't have the big screen of the iPod Touch, or the game-playing capability, or digital cameras or Wi-Fi antenna. All it's got is roominess, 160 gigabytes worth. That's 2 1/2 times the capacity of the roomiest iPod Touch, which is the star of the iPod family. Jobs didn't even mention the Classic in his keynote speech at the latest product launch.

Audiophiles have filled online forums with anguished laments. They're afraid the time is not too distant when the Classic will be discontinued, with the result that they'll be back to the bad old days of choosing what music to load onto their Touches (and inevitably choosing wrong). Even if the Classic remains on the market, they worry, can they be sure that Apple will upgrade it with the latest audio technology going into its glitzy siblings?

What's most interesting about these developments is what they tell us about the evolution of the iPod as a product and a business model. At first the device was a repository for music its owner had acquired elsewhere, either in CD form or (usually illegally) from a file-sharing service such as Napster. Apple didn't sell music then.

The balance began to shift after Apple opened the iTunes music store in 2003; within a week it had sold 1 million songs, validating the store's potential as a revenue source. As the store branched out into videos, TV shows and movies, the iPod's capacity steadily expanded to absorb the new content — 40 GB in 2003, 60 in 2004 (when its screen acquired the ability to display color photographs), 80 in 2005, 160 in 2007.

Apple offered several ways to fill this capacity. It upgraded the digital quality of songs in the iTunes store, doubling their average file size. It pushed more video content at customers — a 90-minute or two-hour Hollywood feature can easily take up more than a gigabyte on your iPod. It introduced a digital format called Apple Lossless, which produces near-CD quality files, but big ones, just the thing an audiophile would obsess over. A roughly one-hour jazz CD takes up 83 megabytes on your iPod in middling-quality compressed format, but 446 megs in Lossless. ("Mingus at Antibes" was my reference CD for this inquiry.)

Then came the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Apple acknowledges that sales of the high-capacity, music-only (or music-mostly) iPods, including the Shuffle and Nano, have been falling. But sales increased in dollar terms, because customers are shifting toward the pricier iPod Touch.

Apple loves that, because its new business model is to squeeze revenue from the iTouch, iPhone and iPad, all of which are designed to generate a constant stream of invoices to users for new apps, new movies, new content subscriptions. Net sales from the iTunes store and other content sources increased by $256 million, or 27%, in the third quarter. Except for the iPhone, the sales growth of which was explosive, the iTunes store was Apple's fastest-growing business segment in 2009.

There's nothing inherently wrong with Apple's configuring its consumer products any way it wishes. Even the company's most devoted customers have long since given up trying to goad it into fulfilling their wish lists on anything but its own schedule.

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