Image Credit: Roman Raacke
Remember when the first iPod came out? 1000 songs in your pocket sounded pretty amazing to me when all I had at the time was a tape-playing Walkman. But I also had a stereo at home, and CDs, and it was obvious to me even back then that there had to be some kind of compromise in order to fit music into a device the size of a deck of cards, just like there was with my Walkman, and oh boy was I right. I didn't know anything about digital audio at the time, but it is obvious now that Apple's entrance into the fledgling digital audio market was based on a strategy that emphasized convenience, not quality.
There was nothing stopping apple from targeting a bitrate over 200kbps for their first digital audio player, but audio quality was never a concern, and that is even more apparent today, when no technological barriers to implementing better compression schemes, or even going entirely lossless exist. What made the iPod, and the iTunes ecosystem that followed so successful was its abandonment of quality for convenience. And not just convenience for the end user. Apple certainly didn't want to pay to store lossless music on its servers, or increase the capacity of its devices. They still don't.
Before the iPod, innovations in audio were driven by an industry that (generally speaking) sought to improve the quality of the listening experience with new technology. CDs are a prefect example of this. It is a format whose specifications were designed by scientists and audio experts to deliver the highest possible quality the human ear was capable of perceiving, and it was largely successful at doing that. What Apple correctly bet on with the iPod, however, was that the ordinary consumer didn't care about any of that. And they were right.
Apple is not wholly to blame for the mediocritization of digital music, but it has been a driving force for the past 15 years. That's why I think it is so funny that people are actually surprised that Apple removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone 7. Of course they know that Bluetooth audio is terrible. Of course they know that it will cause a fuss with some of their most loyal customers. They just don't care. They didn't care when people were outraged at their abandonment of the original iPod design with its large 120gb capacity and relatively low price in favor of the flashier, and much more expensive iPod Touch line, and they clearly didn't care when they bought the scam-masquerading-as-a-lifestyle-brand, Beats. They were even able to brag with a straight face at the iPhone 7 announcement that the most-used listening device on the planet is the shitty earbuds that come with every iDevice.
Face it, Apple has never cared about audio quality, but that's not their fault. They're just making sound business decisions after all. The real blame lies with us as consumers for not caring enough to say "no," and walking away. Perhaps, though, it's not too late.