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Reality Absorption Field: Apple's best product revision

Ross Rubin

Have you heard the news? There's this pretty successful Apple product -- starts with an "iP," ends with a "d" and has a vowel in the middle. And its average prices have dropped. Apple is (cue ominous music) doomed (cue evil cackle). Doomed, I say, repeating myself loudly so as to be heard above the sound effects.

That product is called the iPod. For now, let's confine its definition to the dedicated media players, not the iPhone-without-a-radio that will likely live on for quite a while. The iPod has proved remarkably tenacious and dominant since its introduction in 2001, smashing competitive products and leaving only a handful of cheap players such as the SanDisk Sansa Fuse in its wake.

You don't hear too much about it these days, especially beyond the annual product revision. Incredibly, the iPod classic, despite not being revised in years, remains on sale, and the Shuffle seems to have settled into a pretty familiar form factor. The nano went back to a big screen last year and incorporated a home button as well as Bluetooth (finally).

While Apple's seeking to keep the product fresh, though, the market for standalone media players continues to decline. The iPod may still be refreshed for many years to come, but it is sliding away from view -- and that is a good thing for Apple.

The iPod was unveiled in 2001 as the first major new product category from Apple since the doomed Newton. While the iMac had been a promising harbinger of how things would improve in the post-Amelio Apple, the iPod really started the virtuous chain going that resulted in the juggernaut built over the past decade.

Apple's franchise in digital music and iTunes helped beget the iPhone and app sales, and the iPhone, of course, helped beget the iPad. The iPod's slow decline has come against a backdrop of Apple showing transition from one product arc to the next. It has helped to prove that the product Apple has been best at revising is Apple itself.

What's next? A television? A watch? The iBed? When? Cynics have a point that it will be difficult to top the smartphone opportunity, but that is a constraint that Apple's competitors face as well. And so, returning to the idea that the iPad mini is reducing Apple's tablet margins in exchange for volume when it must compete with $200 (or sub-$200 in the case of the new HP Slate 7) smaller Android tablets, those concerns were voiced about the iPod as well. And that was when market share didn't have the broader implications of furthering an operating system to attract, retain and expand the developer opportunity. Despite cheaper competition, Apple maintained its dominance in media players. However, it also moved on to other categories and other opportunities. Perhaps some of the skeptics will as well.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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