The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the death of the iPod nano is also the end of a gadget era

Customers try out the iPod nano at an Apple store in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2007. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
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Apple has killed off the iPod nano and the iPod shuffle, the remaining music players in its lineup that were solely dedicated to playing music. It has gotten rid of their Web pages and no longer sells them online; those feeling nostalgic have to hit up Best Buy or other retailers while supplies last. With them go the legacy of the iPod — a device that helped revitalize Apple — and the vestiges of a gadget-driven tech era.

Devices dedicated to one thing are so every-decade-before-this-one. We're in a time where we want all of our gadgets to pull double (or triple, or more) duty, and to get continuous updates from the Internet. Even boring tech products like routers are being called on to be “smart” and do something extra these days.

So the writing has been on the wall for these iPods for a while. Apple hasn't even released sales numbers for iPods since 2014, when it lumped them into its “Other Products” category after quarters of sliding interest. That same year, we bade farewell to the iPod Classic — the last design descendant of the original iPod that made mobility a focus of the firm.

In terms of their impact on Apple, the nano and the shuffle weren't nearly as groundbreaking — although the iPod nano sold very well in its day — nor as central to the Apple identity as the first iPods. They couldn't tap the App Store, as their successor, the iPod touch, can. But they had their role to play in setting Apple's reputation among consumers.

The iPod nano, in particular, was a product that cemented for the public many of the stereotypes ascribed to Apple. The company's co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, revealed the nano in 2005 in what we now think of as characteristically dramatic Apple fashion. He pulled one out of the small pocket of his jeans — and announced that Apple would replace its best-selling iPod at the time, the iPod mini, with the lighter and slimmer device.

The drama of the event — as well as Apple's willingness to discontinue a product that was doing perfectly well — was ripe for satire, as illustrated by this 2005 skit in which Fred Armisen plays Jobs. In it, Armisen-as-Jobs introduces new iPods and immediately declares them too big or too old, as the crowd laughs at the way Apple and Jobs tout features that outpace what consumers could ever possibly need. But the skit also points to Jobs as a visionary who pushed the boundaries, even if he got a little out there sometimes.

Ultimately, we moved on from the iPod nano and the iPod shuffle to the iPhone — originally thought of as an “iPod phone,” when we didn't realize what it and the smartphone revolution could do.

Meanwhile, the iPod nano started to show its age. Even after several revamps, it looked and felt like a relic of the past — Apple even had an odd version of its operating system on the device that almost looked like a knockoff of its other products. The shuffle had found enthusiasts among runners and other fitness buffs needing a player that wouldn't ever be interrupted by a phone call from the office and didn't require them to bring a fanny pack along on a workout.

But ultimately, while the iPod may have helped to rebuild Apple, the classic music player no longer fits with the company's direction. Gadgets are no longer just gadgets for most tech firms; they're hardware portals to a broad range of services. Apple is more focused on services than ever — Apple Music, Apple Health, the App Store, Apple TV. Devices that you could theoretically load up once and never need to connect to Apple again? That's not a service play.

So the iPod touch is now the standard-bearer for the iPod name — an iPhone in every respect except for its lack of a cellular connection. In some ways, it's poetic. The iPhone got a boost from the iPod's name and the Apple reputation it helped build. Now it's taken over its predecessor completely.