May 24, 2022
For an entire generation who grew up in the 2000s, the iPod was more than just another high-tech gadget. Everyone remembers their first iPod. It wasn’t some disposable device you would upgrade every year. The iPod was much more personal: It could only ever be synced with one music library, and it required physically plugging into your computer. Lending it to anyone often resulted in such awkward moments as defensively explaining why you once listened to Celine Dion. These were experiences and memories unique to the iPod.
Apple announced earlier this month that it is discontinuing the iPod, the iconic music player that first thrust Apple to the cultural forefront and set it apart from competing tech companies such as Microsoft and IBM. In the dot-com bubble saturated with cold, corporate giants, the iPod bolstered Apple’s image as the hip underdog.
With meager computer sales in a then-stagnant PC market, Apple’s growth prospects were uncertain. Like an up-and-coming band, they were vying for their first No. 1 hit.
“We love music,” exclaimed an enthusiastic Steve Jobs, unveiling the first iPod at a keynote event on Oct. 23, 2001. “And it’s always good to do something you love.”
At the time, the portable music market was dominated by CD players and bulky flash-based devices. They were barely pocketable and riddled with limitations. Heralding a promise to bring portable music to the masses, the first iPod sported a mechanical scroll wheel and a set of navigational buttons beneath a monochrome screen.
The iPod’s design was heavily influenced by Dieter Rams, a German designer who had made a name for himself by reshaping consumer products throughout the 20th century at Braun. With a focus on function, Rams coined his design ethos: “Good design is as little design as possible.”
Amid the cluttered and clunky designs that dominated much of early-2000s consumer electronics, the iPod’s stark minimalism was a futuristic departure. It didn’t need a manual to debug or decipher; it just worked.
For decades, this was a philosophy to which Apple would dogmatically adhere. Moreover, the design language that described the iPod would trickle through Apple’s entire product lineup. Subsequent iterations of the pocketable MP3 only improved and honed the original design — Steve Jobs got it right the first time.
Apple didn’t invent the portable music player, but it understood the industry, and it understood design well enough to perfect it. The iPod was so revolutionary for its time that it effectively created a monopoly. By the mid-2000s, when rival firms had caught up and begun to develop viable alternatives, they were too late. Microsoft’s Zune, despite being lauded by tech critics, quickly became a punchline. Who wants a Zune?
Steve Jobs often quoted computer science pioneer Alan Kay in saying, “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” While Microsoft was busy licensing Windows to every manufacturer willing to build computers, Apple refused to relinquish creative control to expedite growth. They wanted to be in control of every facet of the user experience.
Few companies can claim to have presided over a product that reshaped an entire industry, a feat Apple not only accomplished once with the iPod but again with the iPhone in 2007.
The unveiling of the iPhone was the first sign that the iPod’s cultural reign was nearing its end. The iPhone was the ultimate successor to the portable music player. It encapsulated all its functions within an app and offered so much more. But relegating the iPod to an app, sandwiched between email and GPS, never quite captured the charm of the original, singular device.
Listening to music on your iPod meant actually listening to music. There was nothing else the device was capable of. You couldn’t reply to text messages while checking your calendar with something just playing in the background.
For nostalgic purists, old iPods will continue to be bought and sold on eBay. But for most people looking to reconnect with the appeal of the iPod: Turn off your notifications, eliminate as many distractions as possible, and listen to the music.
Originally published at The Washington Examiner