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Apple should dump the iPod Touch

If it were anyone else's product, the iPod Touch would be considered a runaway success. But as part of Apple's iOS dream team, it's an underachiever that should fall on its own sword.

Broken iPod Touch screen.
Apple's iOS underachiever needs to be put out of its misery. Donald Bell/CNET

I should state for the record that I love my iPod Touch. My Android phone is great for work and communication, but I can't shake my preference for the way my iPod Touch handles music, podcasts, and games. That it can go a few days without charging is also a plus. When it comes to portable media players, there's no product I could recommend more highly than an iPod Touch. The trouble is, no one asks me for recommendations anymore.

When people catch me using an iPod Touch, I'm met with mixture of awe and confusion. The awe comes from the assumption that it's some kind of svelte concept smartphone from the future. At less than a half an inch thick, the iPod Touch makes the iPhone 4 look like a hamburger.

But it's the inescapable confusion that should have Apple feeling uncertain. When I explain that it's an iPod, I can hear the synapses misfiring.

"People still actually buy those?"

Sometimes, reactions can even steer toward concern.

"Is it possible that no one told Donald about the iPhone?"

Rest assured, my credit is fine. I'm perfectly capable of buying one of those newfangled phones that have iPods in them. Personally, the combination of Android work phone and dedicated iPod media player has served me well. Unfortunately, it seems that I'm a rare specimen.

The iPod brand is already dead
It makes me feel old to admit it, but the iPod brand doesn't mean much anymore. In fact, the only time I hear the word mentioned these days is when people mistakenly use it to describe an iPad.

There was a time when the word "iPod" sent trembles through an entire industry. A time when products bearing the name conferred a feeling of smug rock stardom onto their owners. But those days are gone. At last count, iPod sales made for just 5 percent of Apple's revenue, down from 12 percent the preceding year. Apple still has a 70 percent share of the MP3 player market, but it's a shrinking market no one cares about anymore.

Apple's more-affordable iPods, the Nano and the Shuffle, have been reduced to gym accessories. The iPod Classic, as the name implies, is for old people. The iPod Touch (commonly referred to without its iPod prefix, or as "iTouch") is essentially a neutered iPhone.

With the billions Apple is making from iPhones and iPads, its iPod line is practically a charity case. It's the stuff the company keeps around for the tourists who want to walk away from an Apple store with a shiny souvenir. As a company at the top of its game, Apple can do better.

The product Apple should make
As maligned as the iPod Touch is, it plays an important supporting role in Apple's trio of iOS devices. It bolsters Apple's mobile OS installation numbers, and it opens its App Store to an audience of people who aren't already seduced by their phone or tablet.

As a member of this small, stubbornly iPhone-resistant audience, I have to say that I would prefer a more unique and differentiated product than today's iPod Touch. The iPad has already shown that Apple can push out a completely novel design and have it be met with great success. And as the millions already mispronouncing the product name as "iTouch" can attest, it doesn't really matter to me if the iPod brand is invoked or not.

What matters to me is that this third iOS device -- whatever Apple chooses to call it -- should finally emerge from the shadow of the iPhone's design and become a product that even existing iPhone and iPad owners would consider buying.

One possible way to spin this is the rumored iPad Mini. Make it a 7-inch tablet with a relatively high resolution and a $299 price, and you have a distinct third option for iOS. Sure, it's $100 more than today's entry-level iPod Touch, but it's still much less expensive than an iPad. The iPod Touch debuted with a $299 price tag, and it didn't prevent people from gobbling it up out of an interest in sheer novelty.

Another option would be to revive the 5-inch tablet concept that Dell famously flubbed. Don't call it a "phablet," for God's sake, but give it a little more screen than the iPhone to make it its own thing, while maintaining a relatively pocket-size design.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple's iPod Touch gets iOS 5

Pitch it as more of a Sony PS Vita device, but with the FaceTime and iMessage capabilities of an iPhone. You can market it to kids and teens, just like the iPod Touch, but you can also cash in on older folks who want a large-print version of the iPhone they can hold in one hand and FaceTime with the grandkids.

What Apple will likely do
The iPod Touch has been safely drafting the design and capabilities of the iPhone ever since it launched. If the past is the best predictor of the future, Apple will keep applying this lazy (but still lucrative) philosophy to the next version of the iPod Touch.

Rumors point to a new iPhone this summer with a slightly larger screen and 4G data. I'll bet Apple will issue an iPod Touch around September that will include the new iPhone's bigger screen, omit the pricey 4G option, and integrate the improved 5-megapixel rear camera used on the latest iPad.

Of course, Apple could release both an inexpensive midsize tablet and a predictably improved iPod Touch. It would be a step in the right direction, but still a bit cowardly.

Better, I think, to retire this iPod with dignity than to hasten its fade into obscurity. Apple can make a better device, and the company has always done well to prune away products that no longer make its customers excited. It's time for the iPod Touch to step down and make room for something exceptional.