Say good-bye to what made the iPod great

by Eric Benderoff

Apple (AAPL) killed what made the iPod great on Wednesday.

For years, Apple flourished by making its market-dominating music player smaller in size but bigger in storage. The pricing generally stayed flat for new models, but the feature set and storage capacity always offered more. It was a good deal for consumers who were ready to upgrade, particularly on storage.

That option appears to be over, as Steve Jobs made no mention of what was to become of the iPod classic. For true music lovers, the classic was the must-have iPod, as it offered 160GB of storage -- or 40,000 songs in Apple-speak -- and sold for a reasonable $249, just over $1.50 per gigabyte. The iPod classic did not get a makeover like Apple's other three iPod lines: the touch, nano and shuffle.

For music lovers, the iPod started everything

If you love music, you loved the original intent behind the iPod. Sure, one could argue that there was a loss of fidelity with digital music and their compressed files, but products including high-end earphones could compensate for that loss. Apple allowed music lovers to upgrade to bigger-capacity iPods over the years, so if you started building a digital music library as I did back in 2001, when the first 5GB iPod was introduced, you could upgrade as you imported more music. Also, as uncompressed music files started to gain traction among audiophiles to lessen the impact of digital music loss, the need for additional storage became more important.

For many music fans, music capacity trumped everything else, including touch controls, apps and even cute colors.

Yet that era of the bigger-is-better iPod is closing. Jobs showcased a brand-spanking new iPod line-up on Wednesday, and the biggest model offered only 64GB of storage. That is the top-end iPod touch, certainly a beauty of a machine, but one that provides a gigabyte of storage for a whopping $6.20. As a music fan who continues to build a lifelong music library, that's depressing.

The new iPods do offer a little bit more (except for storage) for the same price. The new touch has a front-facing camera for video chats. The new nano is touch-screen only, while the shuffle re-introduced the scroll wheel to fix a flaw in the previous model. Only the shuffle actually costs less than its predecessor, dropping to $49 from $59. The touch starts at $229, a higher price for 8GB, while it still tops out at $399 for 64GB. The nano, meanwhile, has been completely redesigned, but the pricing is exactly the same, $149 for 8GB and $179 for 16GB.

Jobs didn't say anything about the lifespan of the iPod classic, and it is still available if you go to Apple.com to buy one. But for how much longer? The design for the iPod classic page at Apple.com is the exact same as it was this morning, while the three other iPod products have upgraded pages to highlight the new features.

New era started with the iPod touch

The iPod, of course, started morphing into much more than a music player in 2007, when the iPod touch came out. The iPod touch is practically an iPhone without the phone (or as Jobs likes to say, "an iPhone without the contract"). The other iPods have become specialty items: the shuffle is designed for workouts, while the nano, thanks to its broad array of colors (the new model offers seven) has been the darling of teenage girls.

In my view, besides a lack of storage, the iPod touch is the way to go if you want to buy an iPod. Thanks to a Wi-Fi connection, it does compensate for a lack of storage, allowing users to stream music from services like Last.fm, Slacker or Pandora, among countless other audio services.

But as Apple continues to evolve its iPod line-up, it has strayed from what made its annual upgrades great in the first place: more storage. Perhaps Steve Jobs will surprise with another announcement soon, but don't bet on it.

If you want an iPod to do what an iPod was intended to do, hurry up and buy a classic. On Wednesday, Apple stuck a fork in it.