iPod Has Stopped Slimming. Now’s The Time For It To Get Fit [Opinion]


Original iPod and latest iPod nano

The days of the stand-alone music player may be over, but the iPod’s role as the preeminent fitness gadget could keep the product relevant for the next decade to come.

I still remember the moment, ten years ago, when I unboxed my first iPod. It was the size of a deck of cards, which was considered to be svelte at the time. It had just one feature: you dialed up music using a rotating plastic wheel.

Every year since, Apple have found a way to make the iPod smaller. The “classic” model got slimmer, even as its storage capacity increased. While the mini, followed by the nano shrunk things even further. Last year’s nano was so trim that it made the original iPod’s “deck of cards” form factor seem positively obese. (See photo, above).

Now, however, the iPod’s precipitous decline in dimensions has suddenly stopped. This year’s updates to the iPod line were so minimal that they didn’t even warrant their own keynote announcement. Instead of a “one more thing” they were merely an “oh by the way”. Instead of a new form factor, we got Mickey and Kermit watch faces (which admittedly I kinda liked, but that’s beside the point).

What has happened to the iPod? The answer, of course, is obvious. The iPhone happened. These days we listen to music on our iPhones, so the argument goes that we don’t need a dedicated music device anymore. And if you want further evidence of the iPhone’s guilt, look no further than the renaming of the “iPod” app as “Music” in iOS 5. The iPod branding has been eviscerated from the iPhone. There’s your smoking gun.

Some say that the iPod’s time has simply passed. After all, ten years is an entire lifetime in gadget years. The same fate befell the Walkman, and many other good gadgets before it. Personally, I disagree. There are plenty of occasions when I don’t want to take my phone with me. And those are the times when I most value listening to music. Like on my daily run, for example.

I see people running with their iPhone strapped to their arm as if it was a blood pressure cuff, but I just don’t get it. It’s too big and ungainly to ever be comfortable for a serious runner. Plus, if someone calls when you’re running, do you stop and take the call? Shudder. No, running with a phone is just not for me. I’ll be sticking with my iPod, and I think I’m not alone.

And this brings me back to Apple’s recent halt in iPod development. While iPod’s role may have been overtaken by iPhone for day-to-day use, I believe that it still has a future in fitness. This is hardly a niche market after all. Just ask Nike.

Fitness is a market that Apple are uniquely placed to dominate. It requires tight integration of hardware, software and cloud services. This is very much Apple’s territory, and something that Nike has struggled to master. (Witness the recent glitches in the Nike+ service and the erratic accuracy of the Nike+ SportWatch GPS). And with Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, a noted fitness fanatic, now would seem to be a great time to enter this market.

Of course, Apple already has a fitness app for the nano, and a partnership with Nike+, but there is so much more that they could do. If I was the iPod’s personal trainer, here’s the program I’d prescribe to get past the plateau and put the nano back on the weight-loss wagon:

  • Lighter and smaller: Everyone knows that a lighter running shoe is a better running shoe. The same is true of running gadgets
  • Bring back buttons: The nano’s multi-touch UI is a neat gimmick, but runners need physical buttons, so that they can operate the device without needing to look at the screen
  • Water proof headphones: In the summer, they get soaked in sweat, in the winter they get drenched by downpours – not good news for Apple’s frail white earbuds.
  • Get a grip: The current nano’s clip just isn’t strong enough to withstand the jolts of exercise.
  • Accurate GPS: Nike’s first foray into GPS for runners, (the SportWatch) is not nearly accurate enough. Apple could surely do better.
  • Syncing with iPhone/iPad: So you can upload your run data without needing to hook your nano up with a Mac or PC
  • An iCloud fitness app: like Nike+, but more reliable and with better graph visualizing via an dedicated iOS app
  • Motivation: free iTunes downloads when you reach certain fitness goals