Is the Apple iPod Dying Off?

Whatever happened to the iPod?

Five years ago, you couldn’t ride public transportation without sitting near someone with a snow-white Apple iPod. Today, you’ll encounter just as many white earbuds -- but there’s a good chance they lead to a smartphone instead of an iPod. 

“Many of our smartphone customers use their devices as portable music players,” said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel, speaking of iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and other smartphone platforms.

Is the market for the MP3 player, that device made wildly, insanely popular by Apple and its glistening white rectangles, shrinking up and vanishing? Is the iPod dying off? 

Since mobile networks are unable to track how often smartphone users access their built-in MP3 players, Siegel couldn’t give specifics. Nor could Apple, Verizon, or Google when asked by about their respective platforms. 

But market research clearly indicates the trend: Americans are reaching for their iPods less often than they used to. In 2009, only one in 10 reported using their cell phone as a music player, according to the NPD Group. A year ago, that figured jumped to one in four.

Today, the number could be as high as one in three cell phone users, explained NPD analyst Ross Rubin. 

“At the time of our last study, smartphone penetration was only 17 percent,” Rubin told Last year, a rapidly growing 25 percent of Americans used smartphones that are more than capable of playing music on the go. Understandably, consumers are more inclined to leave their iPods at home.

Despite that dramatic increase in smartphone use, music nomads aren’t abandoning their iPods altogether, however. In fact, half of all U.S. homes have at least one dedicated MP3 player, reported Nielsen.

The reason: A smaller iPod Shuffle, Nano, or Sandisk Sansa Clip still makes more sense when it comes to fitness or mowing the lawn, said tech analyst Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies. And they’re a lot cheaper to replace than a $500 smartphone.

“Since dedicated MP3 players are more portable, smartphone users continue to use them under certain use cases,” Bajarin told “Storage limitations of smartphones is another reason someone may still use both devices,” he said. A person might, for example, load his smartphone with a handful of favorite playlists -- then load a large capacity iPod with his entire music library for use in the car or longer trips.

What’s more, in an effort to thwart iPod cannibalization by smartphones, Apple had the foresight to release the iPod Touch in 2007, which is basically an iPhone minus the phone. In other words, “if you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.” People don't want MP3 players -- so we'll make the MP3 players more like smartphones. And it worked: An estimated 50 million iPod Touches (which sell for as much as $400) have been sold to date.

That said, iPods aren’t the only portable devices being cannibalized by smartphones. Swiss Army phones that play music and videos and AppStore games and more have also begun to chip away at Nintendo’s portable gaming dominance, thanks to cheap but still-addictive games like Angry Birds.

But as long as people keep exercising, they’ll keep buying dedicated MP3 players. At the same time, as smartphones expand in capacity and drop further in price, iPods (Touch or not) could become niche devices at some point.

For now, everyone still uses one. But the way we use them has noticeably changed.

Blake Snow is a freelance journalist, media consultant, and iPod user -- when exercising. The rest of the time he uses his BlackBerry.