Backstage: Naming the new iPod [Updated]

[Editor’s Note: Following publication of this Backstage entry earlier today, iLounge’s editors received confirmation from Apple Computer that the new color-screened iPod is officially considered part of the fourth-generation iPod family, rather than the fifth. We thank Apple for this clarification, and now anxiously await versions 5 of both iTunes and the iPod. The article below has been modestly edited to reflect the new information.]

It’s the unfortunate result of preserving a single product name across five different products: controversy over how to differentiate one “iPod” from another. For years, iLounge has been labeling iPods by “generation,” starting with the second-generation (2G) iPod released in 2002. On visual inspection, the only things that changed from the first iPods to the second were a non-moving Scroll Wheel controller and a different top surface, featuring a built-in cover for the unit’s FireWire port. But as a differentiator between functionally separate iPod models, the naming convention stuck, and became widespread.

Click on Read More for the rest of the entry, including pictures of the iPod family.


Apple has since used the “generation” reference in its own press releases, including last July’s announcement of the fourth-generation iPod, the first full-sized iPod to include a Click Wheel controller. And even in settlement papers for the lawsuit over defective iPod batteries, lawyers from both sides used “generations” to differentiate between the first three iPods, accompanying the numbers with explanations of the physical differences between models. The screenshot above comes from Apple’s online store, and appeared shortly after the “latest generation” iPod was announced. But it didn’t say what generation that was, exactly.



Why does Apple publicly keep the same name instead of using iPod 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 version numbers? Part of it is undeniably brand preservation, and the simplicity of continuing to focus all of its marketing dollars on one behemoth called the iPod, rather than focusing on the differences. Another part is probably perceived customer satisfaction – fewer current iPod owners will feel the loss of cachet if they can still claim to own the company’s most-hyped product, at least in title, even after Apple has released an upgrade.

So how should the world know when a new “generation” of iPod has arrived? In the past, the question has never been whether a major technological improvement has merited a new generation, but rather whether a materially different product has been sold as an “iPod,” minus any suffix. Storage capacity changes alone were not relevant in changing generations; Apple changed the capacities of the third-generation iPods, for example, without changing anything else about the iPods, and then referred to the subsequent Click Wheel iPod as the fourth-generation device.


Along the same lines, the current model iPod mini has been dubbed the “second-generation iPod mini,” as its dramatically improved battery life, slightly new body colors, and presentation as the “new iPod mini” set it apart from its first-generation relative. Similarly, if Apple releases a follow-up to the iPod shuffle that’s still called the iPod shuffle but differs in some way other than capacity, the new device will most likely be a “second-generation iPod shuffle,” but if not, it’ll be a “first-generation iPod sport,” or whatever Apple calls it.

The generational confusion we’re dealing with today comes from two sources: Apple’s decision to phase out the iPod photo name, and the strong demand of iLounge readers for an “iPod” that’s more significantly improved over the fourth-generation than the iPod photo. So while the current color-screened iPod is technically the fifth model to be called “iPod,” Apple doesn’t appear to be ready to call it the “fifth-generation” device. Why is this? The company may be waiting to release the “fifth” versions of iTunes and the iPod at the same time. Since iTunes is up to version 4.9, this hopefully won’t be too far off.

By the same token, we can’t just call the new iPod the “color iPod;” the next iPod will certainly also be a color iPod. So what do we do for next year’s model – call it the “second color iPod?” Fifth-generation would work the best, as it’s more future-proof and better references the iPod’s storied history. But if Apple says this isn’t the fifth-generation, “color fourth-generation,” it is.

Names aside, Apple’s still working on new designs, no matter whether people call the new iPod “fifth-generation,” “fourth-and-a-half generation,” or “color iPod.” If you’re upset about a name because you think Apple’s resting on its laurels and won’t release something better – and soon – just think back to last year’s late July release of the fourth-generation iPod. It only took Apple three months to unveil the more powerful iPod photo, and less than a year to do away with the black-and-white fourth-generation design altogether.

Apple’s not pausing. If anything, it’s moving faster than ever before, and quickly making its best technologies affordable to the masses – no matter what you want to call them.

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