The Curious Evolution of the iPod nano’s Design

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” -- George Bernard Shaw

The iPod nano, now in its 7th generation, has traveled a convoluted journey through time. While first conceived as a smaller, more convenient iPod for youngsters and for exercise, its various incarnations have transmogrified according to shifting technical winds, never quite settling down and finding its true self. Perhaps it has now.


One way to think of the iPod nano is that it's been what we needed it to be at the time we needed it. Another way to put it is from TMO's Dave Hamilton: “Sometimes I think that Apple's definition of ‘nano’ means ‘what we call that other, experimental iPod we build.’" Perhaps, at last in the most recent 7th generation, the iPod nano reflects Apple’s best and purest understanding of how customers want to use a device smaller than an iPod touch.

The Early Years (2005-2009)

The first generation nano was released in September, 2005. It was small and thin, and very easy to wear in an arm cuff for exercise. It didn’t do a lot, except play music, and that’s all it had to do.

Early generatons of iPod nano. Image Credit:

Unfortunately, the display plastic was too easy to scratch and Apple ended up having to compensate customers for that. Later, there was a safety recall for the battery, and Apple gave customers a replacement 6th generation free. I was disappointed by the replacement because I already had a 6th gen, and the original nano was very good looking and easy to use for exercise because one didn’t have to actually look at the display to operate it.

The evolution of the first five generations of iPods was fairly natural in that the screen size steadily increased and storage improved. My reaction to the 3rd generation’s squatter physical form was that it was an attempt to increase the screen size, but the net effect was that it was a bit more awkward to handle and to place in arm cuffs for exercise. Still, it was a handsome device, and introduced video playback for the first time.

The 4th and 5th generations were a return to basics, with the benefit of evolving technology. Generation 5, released in September 2009, added a video camera, which many welcomed. In the next generation, that feature would be dropped. As I recall, at the time, Apple claimed that no one was using the video camera, but more on that below. The 5th generation was the last of the click-wheel designs and represented the apogee of the handy pocket music players in classic iPod style.

A Generation Gone Bad

The 6th generation iPod nano was an odd-ball character. Released in September 2010, well past the introduction of the iPhone, it seemed to reflect the growing idea that that it would be, essentially, an iPod shuffle for those who needed a display. Accordingly, it lost its video camera, speaker, and video playback capabilities. Looking back, we may have been overly impressed with the miniaturization and not critical enough of the loss of features.

iPod nano 6G. Image Credit: Apple

Perhaps Apple was sending a message that the proper upsizing was from the shuffle/nano duo to the iPod touch. The clip on the back of that nano emphasized that this item was, instead, a fashion accessory, something to be worn, like jewelry, not so much a useful accessory that fits in a pocket and is deployed when needed. It was an unwelcome ostentation for some.

Also, while it seemed that early models were simply advancing the state-of-the-art, the 6th generation model punctuated an ill-fated misadventure into excessive miniaturization, with a lurch towards a next generation wristwatch.

In fact, the abundance of clock faces seemed like an artificial attempt to force the instantiation this device as “your next watch” and spawned a modest industry of wrist bands for people who wanted to wear it that way. The problem was, in that mode, one had to attach and detach an earbud cable to the wrist. So the quandary arose: is it a watch or is it a music player? At last, there was a gradual realization that such a dichotomy was a bad idea, even if you could somehow squeeze Bluetooth into it. And so, Apple has returned to the vertical format of old in the 7th generation.

7th Generation: a Return to Fundamentals

Along the way, the industrial design of the iPhone/iPod touch line must have also influenced the nano because in the 7th generation, we see the quintessential home button, an important user interface component that tells the customer, “No matter what you’ve done or where you are, home is a safe spot.” This kind of product convergence is welcome.

iPod nano 7th generation. Image Credit: Apple

I suspect that customers also felt overly nerdy using the 6th generation, wearing such a small device, and then having to touch its tiny screen with an index finger. The 7th generation reflects an industrial design that is more in tune with its bigger brothers: if feels comfortable in the palm of the hand and can be operated with a thumb. That’s an important ergonomic factor. It's also just a bit harder to leave in a pocket and run through the laundry.

No doubt, there are customers who are obsessed with the prospect of a true “Dick Tracy” wrist watch and will feel that Apple has betrayed them -- took them down a path and left them hanging. My feeling is that the 6th generation was a technical dead end, an experiment gone wrong and showed confusion about what an iPod nano should be.

As the line has progressed, and the 7th generation is once again larger, I think there are also sensible reasons to leave the video camera out of this iPod model for good, something that appeared only once, the 5th generation. A device that small, that can record video, can be misused by a mischievous person, and it’s just not wise to make such a small device widely available at low cost. That’s my guess, but then I’m a suspicious persion.

The design of the 7th generation model appears to be based on what Apple has learned about how customers use these iPods from its experience with the iPhone and other iPods combined with a realization that the 6th generation was an aberration. Customers want to be able to watch video, share photos, exercise with it, listen to FM and music, use Bluetooth to dispense with cords and have a handy device that’s harder to lose and pleasant to hold in the hand. But adornment? Not so much.

Think of it this way: A jewelry chain decides that it wants to build a music player into engagement rings. After a few years of mangling the design of something classic and elegant, the company realizes that messing with something of timeless beauty is not a leap forwards; it’s a betrayal of a classic art form -- trying to be too many things at once.

Finally, knowing the time of day is so easy now that we all have mobile phones, so a geeky wrist watch is just not a mass market opportunity. But those features I listed above have always been the heritage of the iPod nano, and Apple is simply geting back to its roots in the latest version.

That is, until technology converges on the 8th generation. Then, who knows what crazy experiment Apple will try next?