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Sorry, Apple, the iPod Touch was never really an iPod

The iPod brand may be going away, but what it once stood for ended long ago. And it was pretty wonderful.

Sorry, Apple, the iPod Touch was never really an iPod
[Photos: Apple]

It’s rare for a tech company to issue a press release announcing that it’s discontinuing a product—especially one whose profile had already eroded into near invisibility. But there’s no mystery about why Apple chose to formally acknowledge that it’s ceasing production of the iPod Touch.

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Introduced in September 2007, the Touch has always been most easily described as a device that could do everything an iPhone could . . . except make phone calls. But it was also the last Apple product to carry the name “iPod,” making it a link to the era that began when Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPod music player on October 23, 2001.

In the early years of this century, the iPod turbocharged Apple’s comeback story and captured as much mindshare as any pre-iPhone gizmo ever had. It was the most powerful consumer product brand of its time, and though that time ended when the iPhone arrived, it’s still startling to realize that Apple is killing off the last remaining vestige of the brand that saved the company.

Of course, the Touch had little in common with that 2001 iPod, which was not groundbreaking because it could do almost anything. Instead, it did one then-amazing thing by putting 1,000 songs in your pocket. Though later iPods did offer some additional features—most notably the ability to play videos and shoot video—they remained music-centric in a way that the iPod Touch never was.

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Which raises a question: Branding aside, was the iPod Touch really an iPod? Back in 2005, Jobs himself told Steven Levy that an iPod “is just a great digital music player.” That was his way of explaining that the iPod Shuffle—a $99 MP3 player the size of a pack of gum that played music only in shuffle mode—was still an iPod. If any device that’s great at playing digital music can be an iPod, the Touch surely qualified—just at the opposite end of the continuum from the Shuffle.

Or did it? Far be it from me to quibble with Steve Jobs’ definition of what an iPod is. (As of today, I guess that should be “what an iPod was.”) But there’s a fundamental difference between a gadget that’s about you and your music collection, and little else, and one that is also about socializing, productivity, gaming, fitness, reading, and pretty much every other aspect of life. All those dancing silhouetted people in classic iPod commercials weren’t suffering from digital distraction. Instead, they were deeply focused in a way that’s radically different from the modern experience of using an iPhone or iPod Touch. And it was a focus that would be impossible to recreate on any device that offers the App Store.

There’s also a great yawning divide between a device that’s capable of holding a personal music collection you’ve carefully curated and one that lets you stream songs in infinite quantities from Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, and too many other services to mention. The music streamers have never felt like they’re about my music; for one thing, I can’t go into them without being reminded that there’s a lot of music out there that I don’t care about. And though such services have millions of tracks, they still don’t have all the songs I ripped from CD onto my iPod.

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Back when Apple introduced the first Apple Watch, Tim Cook called it “the most personal device we have ever created.” In retrospect, the iPod in its pre-Touch form has a pretty good claim on that title, simply because there aren’t many things that say more about people than the music they choose to keep with them at all times. So, as far as I’m concerned, the last real iPod went away in September 2014, when Apple discontinued the iPod Classic.

No, I’m not arguing that the iPod Touch was a step backward compared to previous iPods—just that it was something fundamentally different. When we entered the iPhone age, we left the original iPod magic behind, both for better and worse. But thinking about what we lost makes me want to fish an old iPod out of my junk drawer and party like it’s 2001 all over again.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the global technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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