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The iPod nano had a weird, amazing history

The iPod nano had a weird, amazing history


It was discontinued today after 12 years

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21st Century Brands- iPod And iTunes
1st generation iPod nano.
Photo by Scott Barbour / Getty Images

Like the iPod Classic three years before it, the iPod nano’s death today was a long time coming. But years ago, before the product stalled out, lost its identity, and was made wholly unnecessary by the iPhone, it featured some of Apple’s finest design and arguably represented the iPod at its peak — tiny, fun, and focused.

1st generation, 2005

My favorite iPod nano iteration has always been the very first one (seen above). It came in black and white with a silver back, like a shrunken-down version of the classic iPod, and it felt immediately retro. It wasn’t throwing back to anything — just the iPod released a year earlier. But it was as though the nano had leapt so far ahead as to make the traditional iPod feel like a thing of the past, like the nano was a modern riff on technology we used to use and love.

For my money, it also had the all-time-best Steve Jobs unveiling, pulled from the coin pocket of his jeans.

2nd generation, 2006
iPod nano second generation
2nd generation iPod nano.
Photo: Apple

The second generation, released a year later, changed the iPod nano into a more familiar shape, with curved sides and bright color options. It was far more reminiscent of the iPod mini and largely represented what the nano would look like into the future.

As much as I love the original style, the color options have always gone a long way toward making the iPod line feel more fun and personal. I’m still surprised that Apple hasn’t done this for the iPhone (aside from, briefly, on the 5C).

3nd generation, 2007

Then came the third model, which was kind of a bizarre misstep. It made the nano stout and wide, so that it could have a screen portioned properly to play music videos. At a time when YouTube was just getting started, it almost seemed like downloading music videos from the iTunes Store made sense.

I tried to buy into Apple’s vision of loading up our iPods with videos (I had a fifth-gen Classic), which I mostly purchased with iTunes credit from the promo codes on the bottom of Pepsi caps. But it never really made much sense. Watching videos on the iPod was a bad experience — the nano’s screen was just two inches wide — and I’m not sure that I’ve rewatched even my favorite music videos more than a few times.

Apple Announces iPod Upgrades
3rd generation iPod nano.
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

I think the biggest failing of this generation is that the nano just didn’t look cool; it always felt strange seeing someone use one, as though they had chosen the wrong model. Though there was one highlight of this generation: the colors. Apple should really bring back that soft blue and green.

4th generation, 2008

A year after that, Apple returned the nano to its traditional shape. This time, with a longer screen. I’d say that this is probably the peak of the nano’s design. It was where Apple had gotten so good at making iPods, there was just nothing to complain about. It was sleek, it was stylish, and it came in nine colors.

At this point, the iPod touch had already been unveiled, and it was kind of clear that there was only so far that the iPod line could go. Here was where Apple showed that it had done all there was to do with a tiny screen and a wheel.

iPod nano 4th generation
4th generation iPod nano.
Photo: Apple
5th generation, 2009

I remember reading Engadget’s live blog from the back of a classroom when the fifth-generation iPod nano was unveiled in 2009 and being kind of bewildered by what Apple had done. It took the prior year’s model, made the colors glossier, the screen a bit bigger, and — the big upgrade — added a camera to the back.

The iPod didn’t need a camera. Evidently, Apple agreed because it got rid of it the next year. My colleague Paul Miller points out that Apple may also have been trying to compete “with those Flip cams that were all the rage for 12 months.”

This was the model where you started to get the sense that things were over for the nano. Apple had taken the iPod as far as it could. And with nowhere left to go, it decided to shove a camera into the device just because it could.

6th generation, 2010

That was pretty much the end for the iPod nano, but Apple kept the line going for a little bit longer by switching it over to a touchscreen. The first of those was was basically an iPod shuffle with a tiny screen on it, displaying a single button at a time.

This was maybe the best of Apple’s touchscreen nanos, if only because people hacked them into early smartwatches. But ultimately, it just didn’t feel like an iPod. It wasn’t quick and stylish and convenient. It was a weird little product that mostly seemed like an excuse to continue the iPod line.

Apple Launches Upgraded iPod
6th generation iPod nano.
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
7th and 8th generations, 2012 and 2015

The final two iterations came a few years later. They were shaped more like earlier iPod nanos, but with tall touchscreens and a completely redesigned OS. The trouble was that, at this point, the nano had abandoned pretty much all of its heritage. It didn’t really look like a nano or even an Apple product. It ran some odd operating system and had different iconography than all other Apple products. It may as well have been a knockoff made by another company.

That’s how the nano languished for five years. Until today, when Apple removed the product from its website (along with the iPod shuffle) and said it had been discontinued.

Gallery Photo: iPod nano pictures (2012)
7th generation iPod nano.
The future

It’s hard to imagine a world in which the iPod nano continued to work. The product died nearly as soon as it peaked, and it has little to offer in a world dominated by very large-screened phones that offer its core function in a better way, despite largely being a minor feature.

There are certainly futures for the iPod that we can imagine Apple could have chased. It could have reworked the iPod to work with wireless headphones. It could have made something like the Mighty — an iPod shuffle designed for streaming services. After watching Baby Driver, it’s hard to imagine a new iPod that looked just like the old ones, with some small tech updates, wouldn’t be an instant seller. But any iPod is doomed to be a blip on Apple’s earnings sheet compared to the monstrously profitable iPhone. So despite our nostalgia, there’s little reason for Apple to do it.

Even though there was no way forward for the nano, it’s a little sad to see it go. With the Classic gone, and now the nano and shuffle, too, the iPod is very nearly dead. All that’s left is the touch, and that’s hardly even an iPod. It’s just a stripped-down phone.