The iPod is dead.

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Sept. 10 2009 3:49 PM

The iPod Is Dead

Why the days of the dedicated music player have come and gone.

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In the case of the iPod, there are two reasons. The first is pretty obvious: Apple wants to sell as many of the gizmos as possible. The iPod Nano sans camera was the world's best-selling music player, and it's not hard to see why. Small, stylish, easy-to-use, and not that expensive, you couldn't really ask for anything more in a music player. Which, of course, was Apple's problem—once you buy an iPod Nano, why would you ever want a new one? (Well, assuming the old one doesn't break.) Apple's third-quarter financial results, released in July, showed that iPod shipments fell 7 percent from a year ago. Tim Cook, Apple's COO, told investors that the decline was due to "cannibalization" from purchases of iPhones and "a reduction in the market size for traditional MP3 players." How do you solve that second problem? Make a device that appeals to people outside the declining market. Hence the iPod Nano gets a video camera.

This gets to another reason for Apple to keep adding features that go beyond the iPod's original purpose: People like more features. The conventional criticism of feature creep is that it adds unnecessary cost and complexity. Attaching a camera to a cell phone adds more buttons, menus, points of failure, and a bigger price, all for something you don't want. Well—something you thought you didn't want. It turns out that despite people's protests otherwise, a lot of people take a lot of pictures with their cell phones—the iPhone is Flickr's biggest source of photos. If cell cameras were truly distasteful, we'd see stripped-down, camera-free phones selling like gangbusters, but that's not the case. And as Apple has shown with iPhone and iPod Touch, adding a lot of features doesn't necessarily make for bloated devices. If you pile on features in an elegant way—if you keep the interface comprehensible and make sure the parts work well together—then feature creep becomes feature nirvana. You can get an iPod and a video camera in one? Why not?

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None of this is to suggest that dedicated digital-music players won't stick around for some time. Indeed, the very same dynamics that lead to feature creep on the iPod will probably give us better single-purpose music players in the short run—devices with better screens, more room for music, and at better prices. Today, you can get a 16-GB SanDisk SansaView MP3 player for $100; by next year, its capacity will double, and its price will halve. (Some advice to manufacturers of these music players: Take a page from Palm's playbook and rig your devices to sync with iTunes. Apple hasn't proven that it has any legal right to restrict third-party components from connecting to its software—imagine if Microsoft only let you use certain printer brands to connect to Word—and until it does, why not advertise yourselves as iTunes compatible?)

But don't expect this sector to last forever. In time, these players, too, will morph into computers. That's the way computing goes—as Jobs says, general-purpose devices eventually supplant everything else. There was a time when people bought portable word processors because computers were too expensive and all they wanted was something to write with. But in time PCs got cheaper, more portable, and more useful, and it no longer made sense to buy a writing machine. More recently, folks bought little devices called PDAs, tools to keep your appointments and contacts in order on the road. That was short-lived: Now every cell phone is a PDA. It's also a camera and a jukebox. And then there's the case of the Kindle, a dedicated device for reading books. Uh, Jeff Bezos—you might want to watch your back.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.