The difference between the iPod classic and flash-based iPods

I’m trying to figure out what Apple wants to accomplish with the iPod classic with a hard drive (the “lazy” iPod) versus the flash-based iPods (the “active” iPod). I’ll make no bones about it: I have been waiting for a hybrid device with the capacity of an iPod classic and the wide screen of an iPod touch for over two years. I am frustrated that I have to choose between capacity and screen size. That said, I am (mostly) reconciled with the situation as it is today. I understand that the twin concerns of battery life and form factor make such a hybrid undesirable by Apple.

But why the move to flash? Doesn’t it do Apple a disservice, where it gets people derailed from the track of massive capacity iPods? For people with large media collections, having a “lazy” iPod means that device management is largely deferred to the time you want to play your media. But once you decide you want the features from a flash-based device, you only need to intensively organize your playlists, smart playlists, and iTunes habits once, and (theoretically) you never have to deal with a high-capacity iPod again.

Maximum iPod capacities over time

Maybe it’s purely financial. The data density per (hard drive) spindle seems to be leveling out with the class of 1.8-inch drives. Maybe Apple saw this (pretty clearly, due to their massive investments in this area) and sees much more long-term growth and returns on moving people to flash memory. The iPods have progressed from 1GB to 16GB of flash much more quickly than from 10GB to 160GB of hard drive capacity.

The possibility that intrigues me most was first brought up by my officemate: what if Apple doesn’t want lazy iPods (and lazy iPod users) out there? What if Apple wants to encourage people to dock their iPod more often? It could be very beneficial to re-engineer user behavior from synching only before major travel to synching regularly. Introducing podcasts may well have been an early form of this. Television season passes may also be seen as another way of accomplishing this.

Why would Apple push this behavior? Because each time a user syncs, the user interacts with iTunes, and each time that happens, there’s a chance that the user interacts with the iTunes music store. It may well be that Apple’s desire to get “active” iPod users has increased due to new services and/or security models. (e.g., DRM appropriate to movie rentals, perhaps?)