The iPod classic is just keeping the seat warm

On Tuesday, my colleague Peter Cohen bemoaned Apple’s announcement that the iPod classic is now available in only a single configuration. Gone is the 160GB “thick” model, leaving only the “thin” model, now at 120GB. Peter, like many hardcore music aficionados, was hoping for an iPod with more space, not less—or, in a perfect world, a chunky iPod touch with the same capacity as the now-discontinued 160GB classic.

I’ve heard similar complaints around the Web and from friends, and while I, as a music fiend myself, sympathize—heck, I’ve got a 160GB iPod classic right here, and I don’t plan on letting it go anytime soon—my own reaction to Apple’s announcement can be summed up thusly: One down, one to go.

You see, since the day the iPod classic debuted a year ago, with essentially minor tweaks over its predecessor, I’ve been saying it’s Dead iPod Walking. Even the name implies at much: When a product carries the label “classic,” it’s a pretty good bet the company doesn’t see that product as anything more than a legacy offering for, um, classic customers.

Instead, it’s clear that Apple views the iPod touch and similar future products—ones with with large screens, the multitouch interface, and the iPhone software platform—as the future of the iPod franchise (or at least the top end of it). And in terms of storage, Apple has been transitioning from hard drives to flash memory for several years now, because it allows for smaller, thinner devices and because it's simply more reliable in products designed to be carried in a pocket or tossed in a bag. Put the two together, and the flagship iPod Apple wants to produce is obviously an iPod touch with iPod classic-like capacity.

The big obstacle to that goal has been cost: flash memory was, and remains, too expensive to make a capacious iPod touch at a reasonable price. Consider that Apple hasn’t priced a large-capacity iPod higher than $349 since the top-of-the-line fifth-generation model, released three years ago. Similarly, the price of the top-end iPod touch is now only $399. An iPod touch with space to store your entire music library and all that wonderful video being sold on the iTunes Store would cost considerably more than either.

But once Apple can offer an iPod touch with iPod-classic capacity at a price that’s not outrageous, consider it the final nail in the classic’s coffin. Given the declining cost of flash-memory cards, I suspect that day will come sometime in 2009.

As for why Apple—by replacing the 80GB and 160GB classic models with a single 120GB model—reduced the size of the largest-capacity iPod you can buy, some blame the decision on “Apple’s manic pursuit of thinness.” (The slimmer iPod classic uses a single-platter hard drive, and 120GB is the largest currently available; the thicker iPod classic could have accommodated a 240GB dual-platter drive.) But I think the real reason—in addition to the fact that, according to Apple, the larger classic didn't sell as well—is that Apple is priming us for the classic-to-touch transition. Even with falling prices, any major upgrade to the iPod touch’s capacity is likely to top out at 128GB for the near future. When Apple releases such an iPod touch and discontinues the iPod classic altogether, the transition will go much more smoothly, from a PR standpoint, if the new touch offers more space for your media than the model it replaces. Going from 120GB up to 128GB is an upgrade; going from 240GB down to 128GB, not so much.

Until that transition happens, the lone iPod classic, bless its hard-drive heart, is just keeping the seat warm. And when it’s gone, remember it fondly: It’s the last direct descendent of the iPod that started it all.

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