My first was white, boxy, in a rubbery blue case. My second, silver. My third, pink – and that was a Shuffle, barely the size of my thumb, so it’s lost somewhere in the house. If my child finds it, even though he has his own old and cracked Touch model, I’m not sure he’ll know what it is. It’s the Apple iPod and it’s dead.
Over two decades ago, the first iPod, the portable music player from Apple, was introduced. Apple has announced the last remaining model, the iPod Touch, will be its swan song; it’s discontinuing the product. With no new models planned, the iPod Touch will be available for sale only “while supplies last,” as The Verge reported.
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Trust the shuffle, my friends would say. We used the random function as a kind of oracle.
When the first iPod came on the market in 2001, it was a remarkable device, capable of storing 1,000 songs, which seemed like a lot. No longer did you need to cart around dozens of CDs in heavy binders, their plastic cases always shattering or needing bulky storage, or to carefully choose only a selection of CDs before car trips (hope you’re happy listening to David Bowie for eight hours!). The iPod meant you could take your whole music library with you at all times.
It also meant your library – even your musical tastes — might expand. You didn’t have to buy a whole CD or even EP to take a chance on a new band. You could download a single song. You could carry it with you and live with it for a while. You could download tunes from bands that didn’t even have an album yet or that never would (Agatha Parker Sterling, I’ve never forgotten you).
The iPod, as Greg Joswiak, the senior vice-president of worldwide marketing at Apple, said to the BBC, “redefined how music [was] discovered, listened to, and shared.” It helped power the digital music boom, which was already exploding.
MP3.com had been founded in 1997, with Napster, the popular file-sharing site, starting two years later. In 2003, Apple opened the iTunes Music Store, soon responsible for 70% of sales of digital music. You could download music legally (MP3.com, Napster and other file-downloading sites were ordered to shut down or to reinvent themselves without copyright infringement). Bandcamp came on the scene in 2008, envisioned as a site where bands and indie musicians could legally sell their music digitally straight to fans.
The shuffle function of iPods acquired their own kind of cult following, the device choosing songs at random. Trust the shuffle, my friends would say. The shuffle knows what you need to hear better than you do. We used the random function as a kind of oracle, a spin-the-wheel of musical signs. One model of the iPod called the Shuffle did not allow users to choose songs at all or even to see their titles, lacking a screen. The Shuffle was the smallest model of iPod and the first one to use flash memory.
As technology becomes obsolete, it becomes nostalgic too: longing – not exactly for a device, but for a time.
Despite selling about 450 million devices, Apple iPods were not able to withstand the test of phones. It’s a tough argument to carry two devices around when one, the almighty smart phone, ever slimmer and more powerful, can do everything, including play and store music. Those of us who resisted smart phones for a time (raises hand) may have helped keep the iPod fires burning. I also had iPods that outlasted computers, putting me in the uncomfortable digital situation of having music on my music player that didn’t live anywhere else.
In recent years, the iPod Touch enjoyed a renaissance of sorts with parents as a kind of starter device that played music, had games and allowed children to text and communicate with their families without giving kids the full power of the internet in their pocket. It was a gateway phone, the first device I bought my son. I didn’t want to buy him a phone-phone, but during the pandemic, I realized the urgency of my child having a way to contact me. Because of the iPod, he played Bad Religion over and over again, and first learned how to use some texting abbreviations I don’t understand.
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I’m weirdly sad to see the iPod go. Like dial-up internet, like a time without internet, it feels like a part of childhood is going too, an innocence connected both to cumbersome, early technology and the excitement of discovery – the freedom I felt when I could travel with just a slim vessel of tunes.
I remember my silver iPod kept freezing, and I learned a hack where I had to keep toggling the on/off tab while pressing two buttons at once. This seemed perfectly fine to me, worth it for such magic. As technology becomes obsolete, it becomes nostalgic too: longing – not exactly for a device, but for a time. When we didn’t have everything at our fingertips, when we didn’t know everything, either; when some things were as mysterious as what song would play next.
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