The iPod nano had a weird, amazing history

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Comments

I hate Apple, but the iPod is going to be the product I end up telling my kids about and they will probably not be able to relate to it. Sad to see it go.

Weirdo. Why on earth do you "hate" Apple? XD

Price gouging maybe?

What? They sit at the higher end of the market with their prices, but how on earth are they price gouging? So you also "hate" Ferrari then or any company that sells at the high end of the market? Well, fine. No one is forcing you to buy their products. No need for "hate". Jesus. To me that’s a weird world view, hence "weirdo".

Ferrari is the wrong analogy. Harley Davidson (or Gibson) seems closer, to be honest.

Id say Ducati

Which of these is mass produced in China? That would be the analogy.

Good point. Ferraris and Ducatis don’t have anywhere near the quality and precision of good Chinese manufacturers.

I would agree if they were a company that provided something essential like Gas or Electricity. Also if they were using their dominance to make you pay more. However, apple provide luxury products and the days of needing to own an apple product are over. The iPod killed everything else sure but today you can get your music on the phone you have today with a choice of four main streaming services or purchasing stores and you don’t have to touch apple at all. Appe sell computers but you can purchase a PC and have access to pretty all of the apps you need usually by opening a browser or a couple of downloads. They sell phones but you have amazing choice on what android phone you want to buy. I understand why it sucks to not be able to see the justification for the price they sell at but I don’t see why you should hate them for it. Their products are just things and so don’t waste your emotion on hating a company for finding a way to make a crap tonne of money of customers that choose to buy from them. Just buy the product you want from another company.

I hate Apple because both of my iphones shattered after tiny (maybe an inch for my 3GS) drops telling me they were cheap Chinese crap. But the ipod was cool, except for the horrid itunes interface they still force on you people today. Oh, and they won’t pay their taxes in overseas sales and demand a break to bring money home. Typically corporate, but certainly not respectable. Also no expandable storage forcing you to pay 10x the going price for memory. Clearly opinions vary, but I’m shocked you are shocked there are millions of us who despise this company. Much like Donald Trump it’s marketing and little else.

Frankly I’m shocked at how drop resistant modern phones have gotten. I have dropped my iPhone 7plus onto tile and pavement an embarrassing number of times without a scratch (something about having a toddler). Also, force iTunes on you? As a Mac and iPhone user, I haven’t used iTunes at all in probably 3 years. Unless you need to recover from some catastrophic device failure or are a developer who needs to side load apps, you don’t need iTunes. IDevices have been functionally untethered for a long time.
I get the tax issues, and that is unfortunately par for the course. However I’m also guilty of taking any deductions that I can legally get away with.

IDevices have been functionally untethered for a long time.

He’s said iPods. You need iTunes don’t you?

By the way, if you need just a tiny music player with you for jogging, what Apple thinks consumers should choose now?

Apple iPod Shuffle was good for this, but what now?

Apple Watch, obviously. It can play music on its own and it can track your runs at the same time.

You’d think the smartwatch people would be marketing features like this more. I bought the Moto 360 Sport on sale for $99, and it does so much more than play music. It’s a Laptop > Phone > Watch world now, we don’t need the weird steps in between.

But Apple Watch is much pricier than Shuffle was.

True, but it also can do more than Shuffle ever could.

The Apple Watch has been the answer to that question for a couple of years now. They integrated GPS to track your runs without a phone, and the wireless AirPods and W1 Beats X and PowerBeats for listening.

Sure, there will always be people who just want a tiny player to listen to a few tunes while they hit the gym, but that market has shrunk so much that it’s just not worth the R&D to a company of Apple’s size. However, if enough people want it, I’m sure a third party or two will step in and fill the gap.

It really is a ridiculously perfect solution. Listen to music and track your workout at the same time, from your watch!

It seems like you haven’t used an iPhone in many years, and that’s OK. But two things have drastically changed: 1) the iPhone is pretty drop resistant now. Sure if it lands the wrong way you are SOL, but you can say that about any phone. And 2) iTunes has been out of the picture for a few years now, you can (and should) do all your backups and restores via iCloud. Very convenient. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve plugged an iPhone into my PC for iTunes.

Show me your phone/computer and I’ll show you the name of another company which operates exactly the same as Apple (or Microsoft, Google, Samsung etc. etc. etc). If your favourite company doesn’t charge as high prices or make as much profit, that’s not due to altruism or "being nice", but is purely the result of a strategic decision aimed at maximising profits and shareholder value. All companies would love to be able to match Apple’s profits, and would take the first possible opportunity to do so. That’s how business works for all international corporations, and the job of every CEO is to create value. Take that for what it is, but allowing it to bubble up into "hate" towards any one of these companies is irrational and a bit naive.

The part about expandable storage, you do realize there are trade off with having expandable storage right? Speed, mainly. Security is another one. Reliability is pretty poor from what I’ve read too.

I hate Apple for a simple and straightforward reason: I bought 144 Zunes, and am now condemned to using them for eternity, or at least until I’ve worn the brown off the cases on every last one of them. And when that happens, I’ll just go out and buy 144 more of them. In the meantime, I hate Apple.

You.. hate Apple because you bought an ungodly amount of Zunes?
Edgy

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