After the turn of the millennium, I don't think there was a single product that said welcome to the future quite as well as the iPod did. It took an incredibly mainstream activity, listening to music on the go, and made it cooler by like two orders of magnitude, as you could suddenly have a thousand songs in your pocket instead of the dozen or so you get with those portable CD players that always skipped and scratched your CDs and then the batteries would die.
But, of course, in the eternal quest for doing it all gadgets, like the Swiss Army knife, the Bowflex, and the Magic Bullet, the iPod started losing popularity once smartphones hit the scene, as no one wanted to have to carry around two devices when one would do just as well.
Although the iPod managed to hang on for over 20 years thanks to ease of use, slick marketing, and for a while higher storage capacities than competing smartphones, Apple finally discontinued it in May 2022. But could we possibly see a comeback of the iPod or similar portable media players?
Let's think about what made the iPod so popular in the first place. It did one thing and it did it well. It wasn't the first MP3 player, but its simple interface and design made it user-friendly and undeniably cool when it came out, trust me, I was there, and I couldn't afford one. But the market for single purpose devices has fallen off quite a bit since the rise of the smartphone. Pocket-sized digital cameras, for example, have become increasingly irrelevant as people are now shooting full-fledged movies on their phones. Google Maps is more responsive than trying to fiddle with Garmin, and phone flashlights can blind you almost effectively as a pair of headlights.
So digital music players would need to offer something a smartphone doesn't to remain viable. Many music players that are still in production today set themselves apart with higher audio quality than you can get on your phone. Assuming the songs you put on them were encoded at a high enough bit rate, they support very high resolution playback and include quality amplifiers and DACs inside that can even rival desktop models. Some of them can even drive high-end, high-impedance headphones that would sound quiet or distorted on typical portable players or smartphones. And some have a balanced headphone output to reduce interference.
You might also see support for higher quality Bluetooth codex than on your phone of choice, as well as a chalky battery to power all these fancy components for long enough to actually make a player like this practical to use. Of course, all this assumes that you care enough about audio file quality sound to drop up to four figures on one of these players.
Most of us don't and most of us can't tell the difference between 98th and 99th percentiles of sound fidelity. So while there may be a niche for these enthusiast great players for a long time to come, could something like an iPod make a comeback for the rest of us?
Instead of overkill audio quality, maybe the average person could be sold on more practical improvements. Offer a 4G or 5G data service that can only be used for music streaming, when you sign up for a service like Apple Music or Spotify. Home security company, Ring, notably uses this same paradigm for cellular backup already. Give it longer battery life than a smartphone and better storage options for when we want to listen to music in areas with poor signal. Most phones don't even offer SD card slots anymore. So simply giving people the freedom to expand would be a major plus if they spend lots of time living in or visiting places with slower, unreliable internet.
But I don't see any of these things being a good enough reason for Apple to bring back the iPod. It's just not their style. Maybe the closest thing we'll get is a pair of AirPods with built-in cellular connectivity and mandatory subscription to Apple Music. That would be a mass market product that couldn't be simpler to use and is guaranteed to beam money back to the Apple spaceship. But that wouldn't really be an iPod. Which leads us to believe that the iPod, as we know it, is probably permanently dead. But I mean, of course, we'll never forget it. I mean, record players were invented in the 1870s, but you can still just walk into a Walmart and buy one, right? RIP iPod.