Is Apple's iPod tune getting old?

Apple's incredible success in the digital music player category puts it in an odd position. Except for a few minor tweaks of design, it's not clear how much more Apple can do with the category.

A view of the new iPod Shuffle lineup on the show floor at Apple's 2010 music and video event.
A view of the new iPod Shuffle lineup on the show floor at Apple's 2010 music and video event. Donald Bell/CNET

For the second straight year, the collective reaction to Apple's unveiling of its fall iPod lineup was basically "meh."

For the uninitiated, that's Internet shorthand for "I couldn't care less." Last year's iPod Nano with camera failed to ignite much instant excitement, and this year's new products didn't appear to fare much better. It's not that they're not good products--the announcements are just not generating the same amount of hype and interest as, say, an iPhone or iPad launch these days.

One of the issues is that Apple sets the bar pretty high for these kinds of special events, particularly in the last year. But the bigger one is that as Apple closes in on a decade of making the iPod, it's become clear that the category has become rather ho-hum for the company.

That's not to understate the iPod's influence. The first MP3 player from Apple in 2001 morphed it from a computer company into a consumer device and digital content company and paved the way for Apple's ability to turn the existing smartphone and tablet categories completely on their heads. But the iPod's influence on the company has been waning for some time, as was demonstrated Wednesday.

Apple's fall event has been held every year since 2005 and has been primarily used to showcase the latest iPod for the holiday season and any updates to the iTunes software. But Wednesday was more about Apple's overall media presence: focusing on new iTunes social-networking features, new iOS functionality for iPads and iPhones, and media sharing and streaming with Apple TV.

The iPod has come a long way from its 1,000 song-holding, black-and-white screen, clickwheel beginnings, but that progress and success have also left the company in an odd position. Apple's history isn't exactly rife with examples of it dominating competitors. The iPod is different that way: Apple won this category years ago, beating its competitors so badly that there are few companies that even bother competing in the category anymore.

And though Apple still sells millions of iPods every year, sales have started to decline . Apple's revenue drivers these days are the iPhone and the iPad, so it's natural that's where Steve Jobs and company are placing their focus.

But since it does own the digital music player sector, Apple is forced to try to keep things interesting in a category that really isn't.

The way they've gone about keeping that interest the past couple years has been somewhat confusing too. Every year since 2008, Apple has added iPhone features to the iPod Touch, including this year with the retina display, two cameras, and FaceTime capability.

That makes sense, as it gives Apple ways to sell apps on its App Store to people who don't want to shell out for an iPhone or iPad. It also means there are more people for iPhone 4 owners to use FaceTime with than just each other.

The Shuffle redesign shows some indecision: last year Apple went away from having any buttons at all on its tiniest MP3 player, a move that was roundly panned--which Jobs acknowledged Wednesday. In its place, Apple brought back a two-year-old design.

Some of the other decisions are just odd. For instance, what happened to the camera in the Nano introduced just a year ago and proclaimed a Flip Video killer? And why remove the ability to play video on the Nano? Apple declined to comment specifically on video. It's also not clear if Apple really thinks a tiny touch screen and no physical buttons on the Nano is actually a great idea, or if the company feels like it just has to do something, anything to help people justify buying a new device.

The easiest conclusion is that the iPod is simply no longer a main focus of the company, but is still one that its customers expect Apple to do something with each year. Without major leaps or any competitors to try to grab attention from, Apple could probably get by without a special press event for iPods in the future but might continue to do it just because its customers expect it. But that means customers need to adjust to the idea that every year won't bring major breakthroughs in every product category. With the iPod, it's just not clear how much more Apple can do with it beyond little tweaks here an there.

Put another way, there hasn't been a major leap in the iPod lineup since the iPod Touch in 2007. It's a good bet there won't be another.

 

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