Apple Should Bring Back The Clickwheel iPod

We need fewer things that do everything.

The iPod Touch—which is ultimately an iPhone without the phone—is a device without a clear purpose. Its cohort is large and, it seems, endlessly growing: 12 years after the LG Prada arguably launched the smartphone as we know it, we’re drowning in rectangular, internet-connected screens with apps that let you do the same thing over and over. Even your fridge can have a big tablet grafted to the front, and yes, you can watch TV on it.

So, we certainly don’t need a new iPod Touch. But Apple is rumored to be developing one anyway.

Let’s ignore for a second the thing that most demands our attention—a literal heap of electronic-waste that grows with each new gadget shipment—and think about the situation in terms of pure utility. The iPod Touch exists more for the company than it does for you: As AppleInsider has pointed out, it’s a relatively inexpensive ($199) way to get an iOS device to customers and, therefore, a route to funnel money into services like Apple Music and iTunes—services that are increasingly valuable to Cupertino.

The device doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. The iPod Touch launched in 2007, six years after the introduction of the first iPod and shortly after Steve Jobs stepped on stage with the iPhone. “This changes everything,” he said. And it did. As smartphones and wireless internet spread, it seemed that everything with a screen should in fact have a touchscreen and that the availability of apps should be taken as a given whenever possible. Today, the Nintendo Switch has Hulu despite its junky display, the Google Home Hub has Crackle and Deezer, and your Michael Kors smartwatch can run iHeartRadio while you text from it. Touchscreens, internet, and apps are the three ingredients in the techno-molasses that has trapped us all.

Because our telephones are now essentially appendages linking our fingers and minds to the ever-growing expanse of the World Wide Web, we expect some continuity of service when we move from device to device. If you start a movie on your iPhone, you should be able to finish it on your PlayStation, and you should be able to stream Fortnite to Twitch with your Xbox for someone to watch on their Kindle Fire. The seed of the modern internet now has roots shooting through uncountable nodes, and any new device should strive to maintain those connections. Or so we’ve been told.

The iPod Touch is, essentially, an iPhone without the phone. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images Plus

The problem is that no one asked for this, exactly. Any app or service may be great on its own, but the connected universe of apps and services, with its constant din of notifications and distractions, has become overwhelming. It’s no big surprise that a debate around “screen addiction” has flared up in recent years. Apple itself recently debuted a feature that helps control your screen use. The “Time Well Spent” movement is, well, an actual movement.

All of which is to say that the utility of any new smartphone-like device is now questionable at best. The technology is everywhere, and that everywhere-ness has become a burden to the modern internet user.

What may be more useful, now, at the turn of a new decade, is a renewed focus on individual devices that excel at individual purposes.

And so, back to the iPod Touch: What was once a simple if revolutionary music-listening device became, like everything else, an everything device. If you want, you can put Slack on your iPod. You can Skype with it. This might have been great a decade ago, when the novelty of these functions shielded us from their harms and there were far fewer of them to begin with, but in 2019, it’s a disaster. Though the burden may ultimately fall to an individual user to take responsibility for their own screen time, putting an App Store on a device is kind of like introducing Chekhov’s gun—expect the thing to be used.

What may be more useful, now, at the turn of a new decade, is a renewed focus on individual devices that excel at individual purposes. The classic clickwheel iPod was, for a time, the best portable music player. It helped you live your life with a soundtrack; so does an iPhone, but it will shudder with notifications and tempt you with apps that ask to be their own lived experiences. You could pop an earbud out midsong to give someone directions, but you can’t really hold a conversation with your mom while you’re reading a notification from Twitter.

When the paradigm shifted in consumer technology toward online services and social networking, Apple phased out the clickwheel and kept the Touch, a device that found some kind of parity with the iPhone. It was a sensible move that helped bring iOS to people who didn’t yet want to buy a smartphone. The entire market moved in this direction, and the differences between this thing and any other similar thing became boring and obvious. Different app ecosystems, perhaps. Different screen sizes. Same function.

Now, we have a parade of devices that are roughly the same amount of good at everything.The entire sales pitch of the iPad Pro is that it might also function as a laptop, and a new category of foldable screens has emerged in an effort to find the person who needs, at any given moment, both a 7.3-inch screen and a 4.6-inch one. The result is not to create new functionality; it’s to fit current functionality into whatever few open spots remain in our lives.

The invasion of the smart rectangles is, I’d bet, what drives our exhaustion more than any given app. The status quo is to interact with these things whenever possible. Stitching “Screen Time” into iOS can’t fix it.

But more purposeful devices could. An iPod that’s just for music—updated to work with the streaming Apple Music service, perhaps—might help us create space away from our phones, laptops, and tablets. In an era that’s seen new minimalist phones and wild demand for totally offline “classic” consoles from Nintendo, a revival doesn’t seem particularly unreasonable. Amazon still makes Kindle e-readers, after all: They’re less “functional” than the Kindle Fire tablet, perhaps, but there’s a reason many people prefer to read e-books on them.

So, bring back the clickwheel.

We’ve been moving to the point of app saturation for 12 years. For a time, there was a reason to be enthralled by the glossy black touchscreen and its many apps. Now we can feel how they’re broken, and how they’ve broken us. For a better tomorrow, we could do worse than to take inspiration from the past.

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