The End of the iPod

It was just a dozen years ago, but it seems like it’s been decades. In October, 2001, Apple introduced the first iPod. No one knew, at the time, that Apple’s portable music player would revolutionize the way we listen to music, and the music industry itself. The iPod certainly wasn’t the first MP3 player, but it was the first to get it right: the combination of the iPod for portable listening and iTunes to store and sync music, made managing digital music easy. But now, the iPod is on its last legs.

Over the years, we saw many Apple presentations which highlighted new iPods. Steve Jobs would go overboard describing how cool the new features were. Apple’s zeitgeist was all about music. Bands such as U2 and Coldplay played at the ends of these Apple events, and Apple TV commercials were all about music.

Apple successively added new models to the iPod line, and, with them, new features. From being simply a music-playing device, the iPod added the ability to view photos, then videos. It got successively smaller, with the iPod mini, nano and shuffle, and inherited a touchscreen display, nine months after Apple introduced the iPhone. Today, the iPod line is dominated by the iPod touch, which can play all sorts of media, but also take pictures and videos, and run apps, but Apple still sells the iPod nano, classic and shuffle.

Where can the iPod go next? iPod market share has been sliding slowly as the iPhone came to dominate the pocket-sized device market. For most people, the iPhone holds all their music; there’s no reason to need anything else. The iPad is also cannibalizing some iPod sales: if you don’t want to device put in your pocket, a tablet can play music and videos, but also give you a large enough screen to surf the web comfortably.

Apple still sells a direct descendent of the very first iPod: the iPod classic. This model is the only hard-drive-based music player that Apple sells. While this is fragile (I ruined an iPod classic once by dropping it; the hard drive died), it also offers larger capacity than current flash memory based devices. However, if Apple can get the price of flash memory down enough to offer similar capacities in an iPod touch, the classic’s only trump card gets beaten.

I like the classic because I have a huge music library; much more than the device can hold. But if Apple could sell me an iPod touch with the same capacity – 160 GB, or even more, at a comparable price – I’d be tempted to buy one. While the iPod touch is more versatile, it’s much more expensive. The iPod classic costs just $249, compared to $399 for the 64 GB iPod touch. If you look at the price Apple charges for additional flash memory for iPads, it would cost $100 more to get to 128 GB; and how much more than that to get to 256 GB?

Perhaps Apple needs to take a different tack for the future of the iPod. Most iPhone users have enough capacity for their music libraries. But the hard-core music fans with 50,000, 100,000 or more tracks in their iTunes libraries find it too restrictive. In addition, there is a growing market of audiophiles who are interested in better sounding portable music players.

With this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a flash memory based device with 512 GB of storage, and the ability to play high-resolution files. It would have a digital optical output, allowing users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, so they can have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate the improved sound quality when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to go for high-capacity storage: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), 512 GB would hold about 500 albums, or 5,000 songs. If you stick with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 1,000 albums, which would be fine for most users. The flash storage would be costly, but the people this device would appeal to might be willing to pay for it.

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an audiophile-quality DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200. Apple could use a similar audiophile-quality DAC, and, with the flash storage, probably make a device that would sell for less than $500.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that would stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface. It could be a touch screen, or voice control; perhaps even an iPod touch-like display with a virtual scroll wheel, to remind users of the original iPod.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?

As the iPod continues its decline, it might be time to try and differentiate it from other portable music players. There’s nowhere to go with the iPod line, other than improving sound quality and increasing storage, and Apple could make a wonderful device that combines these two improvements.

Most likely, in another dozen years, we’ll access our music through blazingly fast 8G connections in lossless or high-resolution formats, streamed through the ether to slim key fob sized devices. We’ll listen to them on audiophile-quality wireless headphones, and we’ll be able to access all our music everywhere. But for now, at the end of the iPod era, Apple could make a bold statement with an iPod pro as a milestone to mark the end of an era.

This article was originally publish in Issue 21 of The Loop Magazine.

Why Does Apple Only Offer 5 GB Storage with iCloud?

Apple’s iCloud is used for several purposes. You may use it for email; you can use it to sync your contacts and calendars; you can store files there, notably for Apple’s iWork apps; and you can use it to back up your iOS devices.

But what if you have several iOS devices, and also use iCloud for email and documents? If you back up your iOS devices to the cloud, you’ll quickly hit the 5 GB limit. I explain how to trim iOS device iCloud backups, but, still, some people will hit that limit quickly.

Apple’s free 5 GB is a good thing; it entices people to use iCloud. But it’s not enough. If they want people to use iCloud, they should make it easier to use. Apple’s prices for storage are quite expensive:

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Yes, you can get an extra 10 GB for only $20 a year; that’s enough to back up a couple more devices, but it’s pretty stingy. For $100 a year, you only get 55 GB (the free 5 GB plus another 50). Cloud storage prices are plummeting, and Dropbox, for example, gives you 100 GB for $100 a year, and Dropbox’s storage is much more flexible, since you can access it directly from a Mac.

Apple needs to move to a model where they give you more storage, perhaps 5 GB per device. It’s not that hard to manage; they could give you the storage when you buy the device, and have you register it, and then, say, once a year, have you connect to iCloud with the device to verify that you still own it. Or, if they were smart, they’d just give you a lot more storage free. After all, OS X is free, iOS is free, and the iWork apps are now free as well. Why make it so hard to manage file storage and backups?

(Note: when I bought my Android phone, it came with an extra 50 GB storage on Google Drive for two years; that’s in addition to the default 15 GB.)

By the way, I’ve paid for Apple’s online services since the beginning: iTools, MobileMe and .Mac. I very much regretted the loss of the iDisk – even though it didn’t work very well – but Dropbox has stepped in to to that type of receptacle, useful for sharing large files, the right way. I wouldn’t mind paying Apple for iCloud, if the service were good enough, and if there were enough storage. But let’s wait and see: with their big data centers, I have a feeling they may be planning something for the next big versions of OS X and iOS.

How Apple’s AirPlay Streams Audio

I got a question from a reader asking how Apple’s AirPlay streams audio. The question specifically asked about how audio files are converted, and whether AirPlay reduces their quality.

Apple doesn’t provide much information about AirPlay, and I found a number of articles and forum posts where people described complex testing routines to determine the bit depth and sample rate of music streamed to AirPlay devices, such as an Apple TV or AirPort Express. But you don’t need to go to such great lengths to figure this out. Simply open Audio-MIDI Setup on a Mac, and select AirPlay.

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As you can see above, AirPlay streams at 16-bit, 44,100 kHz. However, what you don’t see is that AirPlay streams music in Apple Lossless format. What this means is that no matter what format your music is in, it gets converted by OS X – not by iTunes – to Apple Lossless, to ensure the highest quality. So lossless files will be streamed as lossless, as will AAC or MP3 files.

However, high-resolution files will be downsampled to 16/44.1. Interestingly, the Apple TV outputs audio in 48 kHZ, most likely because this is 48 kHz is the standard for movie and TV audio[1]. Movies sold by the iTunes Store contain audio at 48 kHz, but only at 160 kbps.

In Praise of the Mac mini

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently wondering when the next Mac mini will be released. It’s been a while: the last update was in October, 2012, nearly a year and a half ago. Since its introduction in January, 2005, the Mac mini has seen refreshes roughly once a year, give or take a month; this is the longest time this model has gone without an update.

overview_server.png The Mac mini is small, quiet, unobtrusive, and it’s a mini-sized powerhouse. It’s the first Mac that I’ve owned that is, essentially, invisible. Mine currently sits on my desk, behind my 27″ Thunderbolt display, and I neither see it nor hear it. It’s more than fast enough for my work, and it’s flexible, in spite of its diminutive footprint.

001.pngThe model I use is a late 2011 version; I’m out of date by one generation. But there’s nothing in the more recent Mac mini that would make a difference to me, except, perhaps, USB 3. I have a number of Thunderbolt hard drives, so I get plenty of speed with them, but it would be nice to have the option to use the faster-than-USB 2 connections with lower cost drives.

When I got the Mac mini, I tricked it out as much as I could, planning on keeping it as long as possible. I didn’t care as much about the price tag as I did about longevity. So I got the fastest processor available at the time, and I got a 256 GB SSD, along with a second internal 750 GB hard drive. I initially got the base 4 GB RAM, but upgraded it to the maximum 16 GB. There’s nothing I do on my Mac mini that stresses the computer, and only rarely do I tax it to the max. The only times its processors get a workout are when I convert music or video files; ripping a DVD with Handbrake takes a while, and it would be a bit quicker if I had a faster processor, but it’s not something I do often enough that it’s a bother.

I was just thinking the other day that, while I’d probably buy a new Mac mini if it were released soon, I really don’t need one. (I’d move the existing one to a different room and use it as a server.) As we’ve reached the stage where megahertz no longer matter, it’s hard to find something that this computer can’t handle. Naturally, if I did video editing, or used other apps that require a lot of CPU exertion, it would be different, but for 99% of Mac users, the mini is more than enough.

The Mac mini is also a very popular computer. It’s widely used in its server version, and it’s the computer of choice for people who set up dedicated computers to manage their media libraries. It’s versatile, small, and inexpensive, and while it’s not going to win any design awards, like the latest Mac Pro will, it chugs away in the background, doing everything I need. The Mac mini may be one of the best Macs Apple has ever made, because it just gets out of your way and lets you get to work.

What Happens to Content Purchased from Apple When You Die?

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You use your Apple ID for a lot of different things. It’s your email account, if you use iCloud email; it’s your iMessages connection (though you can also use your phone number); and it’s especially the key to any content you’ve bought from Apple. You use it to buy from the iTunes Store, the Mac App Store, the iOS App Store, and the iBookstore.

But what happens to all that content when you die? Since your Apple ID is the key to all of this, if you haven’t given someone the password, then it becomes orphaned. In fact, according to Apple’s terms and conditions:

You agree that your Account is non-transferable and that any rights to your Apple ID or Content within your Account terminate upon your death.

This means that, not only do your next of kin not get access to purchases you’ve made from Apple, but also to your email, photos and documents, as long as they’re protected by an Apple ID.

The UK newspaper The Telegraph reports today that “Apple […] refused to unlock iPad belonging to cancer victim’s son ‘without written permission’ of his late mother”. In this particular case, the son didn’t even want to access his mother’s content, but simply be able to use her iPad. Since Apple’s Activation Lock security prevents you from resetting an iOS device without the Apple ID and password of the current owner, there was no way this person could use the iPad as his own.

Apple does say that “Upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate your Account may be terminated and all Content within your Account deleted,” and, in this case, it finally deleted the account. But it seems like a very big hassle to go through, and one you might want to avoid.

For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave your Apple ID password in a safe place for your next of kin, just in case. It could be written down and stored in a safe deposit box, or it could be stored in a password manager, if you have one, as long as your spouse, partner or children know the password to access that app.

I’ve written about The Problem with Apple IDs for Macworld, and this was one of the issues I raised.

Another point to make is that Apple’s terms and conditions make it clear that you do not own any content you purchase from the company, but are only granted access until your death. That’s a much more complicated issue that may, one day, have to be dealt with by the courts.

In any case, make sure you have a spare set of keys – your Apple ID password – in a safe place. Just in case.

iWant: An iPod Pro

Let’s face it: the iPod is dying. Apple still sells the iPod classic – with 160 GB storage on a hard disk – the iPod nano, the iPod shuffle, and the iPod touch, but the iPod family, overall, is on its last legs. Look at these numbers, showing iPod sales over the past few years (source: Macworld):

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Apple’s still selling more than 12 million units a year, but that’s down from 19 million just two years ago. Compare that to iPhone units (source: Macworld):

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Apple is selling more than 37 million iPhones a quarter; the iPad sells more units than the iPod as well.

So, with this in mind, I think it’s time that Apple release an iPod pro. I imagine this as a hard-drive based iPod (because of the storage capacity), with the ability to play high-resolution files, and with a digital optical output. This would allow users to connect a portable DAC (digital-analog converter) and headphone amp, and have excellent sound through their headphones anywhere. Granted, you wouldn’t appreciate this when walking on a busy street, but there are times when you want to listen to music on good headphones, and don’t want to be connected to your stereo.

The iPod pro would have to have more capacity than the current iPod classic: with high-resolution albums taking up a gigabyte or more each (for 24-bit, 96 kHz files), a 250 GB hard disk would hold about 200 albums. If you stuck with Apple Lossless, you’d be able to store around 500 albums, which would be fine for most users. (Or, they could go to 512 GB of flash storage… Costly, but this is for a market that might be willing to pay for it.)

Apple could eliminate the digital optical output by including a DAC worthy of the name “pro.” The Chinese company Fiio has released a portable music player with an excellent DAC, which supports music up to 24-bit and 192 kHz, and which sells for around $200 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Apple could use a similar quality DAC, and still come in at, say, $300 or so, with a goodly amount of storage.

And they could let Jony Ive have free reign over the design of the iPod pro, making a device that could stand out from what we’re used to with the iPod. If it doesn’t need iOS, Apple could use this to try out a new type of user interface.

The market wouldn’t be very large, but neither is the market for Apple’s forthcoming Mac Pro. Apple is showing, with the Mac Pro, that they can sell a cutting-edge Mac for the handful of people who want one; why not do the same with an iPod, for those who want high-quality sound in a portable music player?