Farewell, iPod

by Marshall Bowden

Music is a part of everyone’s life, and because it’s a part of everyone’s life, it’s a very large target market all around the world. It knows no boundaries.  –Steve Jobs, 2001–

I am 21st century analog man. Streaming, cloud storage, crypto–anything you can’t touch and feel cannot be trusted. 

Mind you, I’m not some Luddite or technophobe. As we expanded and lowered cost on storage for music we were on the right track. I’m a vinyl appreciator, but the switch to CDs made sense, especially once music was remastered for the new storage media. 

In theory there was nothing wrong with moving music files to hard drives and allowing their sale through downloads, but it was really a bridge too far in large part because the music industry lacked the initiative and the creativity to adapt to the new reality and build an appropriate platform. It moved music from a download to a streaming business that has come to be controlled by platforms whose interest in music is non-existent. 

I think that it’s fascinating to watch the iterations of various media revivals (vinyl! cassette!) being touted by the mainstream media, and a lot of music media as well, when what is happening is that a lot of people are realizing and coming to understand that it’s better to maintain older means of playing obsolete media rather than rely completely on streaming. Anything held on a server outside your control can disappear overnight, if, say, the company disappears or if rights holdings suddenly change hands, or if maybe Elon Musk buys the streaming platform. The idea that everything we now consider a product will be, in the near future, a service means that we trade ownership of things for that old carrot on a stick, convenience. It’s equally fascinating to see people sticking to their legacy equipment, or at least keeping it as part of the mix.

I mean, imagine inheriting Mom’s music collection stored on a server at Microsoft, or worse yet as playlists on Spotify, to go with your Uncle’s NFTs. They don’t have value. They don’t mean shit.

And so the time has come to bid farewell to the iPod, the Apple music player that changed the way music is consumed and ultimately paved the way for the streaming business and for music to become a useful adjunct to tech marketing and the financial industry rather than an intimate creative outlet. 

The iPod came about because while the idea for a portable music player that used an internal hard drive to store music rather than removable media (CD, cassette tape, memory stick) was being eagerly pursued, the design and function of such products was poor. Steve Jobs asked his hardware expert, Jon Rubenstein, to see if there was a design that could make the idea of a portable digital music player simple and elegant. By chance Rubenstein was shown a tiny hard drive that Toshiba had developed but had no idea how to utilize, and instantly he realized it was the breakthrough that would allow the iPod to become reality.

In October of 2001, Jobs announced Apple’s ‘breakthrough digital device’ but the market was skeptical of the $399 list price for an MP3 player. Slowly the device became more accepted and by 2003 Apple added USB (in addition to Apple’s native Firewire technology) and made its iTunes jukebox software Windows compatible, making the iPod an available and attractive option for Windows and PC users.

In 2004 I got my first and only iPod, the iPod mini, which had 4 GB of storage and came in five colors–mine was silver and came as an Xmas gift. The Mini had a number of cool advancements–the iconic wheel control became a ‘click wheel’ that incorporated the commands of the player’s control buttons into the same wheel device that allowed users to scroll through hundreds of music files quickly. 

The mini also featured random shuffle, which quickly became the signature feature of digital music. Shuffle vaulted the iPod ahead of previous technology like the Sony Walkman and Discman, because you didn’t have to hear the songs in order, or hear an entire album, or continue listening to a song you didn’t want to hear at the moment. Shuffle personalized the music soundtrack that we were quickly becoming used to hearing wherever we went and whatever we did. It also paved the way for streaming music apps and ultimately for making music a commodity and divorcing artists and listeners from the idea of the album as the music industry’s main product. 

Apple also showed the music industry the possible future that they could have adapted right then, providing $0.99 song downloads via its iTunes store. But instead of adopting industry-wide standards and creating a player and storefront that provided legal downloads of music, the music media corporations instead decided to fight piracy with restrictive measures like DRM-encoded CDs that wouldn’t allow music files to be ripped to a hard drive and by suing individual users downloading music over peer to peer services like Napster.

The industry, and many cultural observers as well, didn’t believe that people would pay for digital music, but Apple proved them wrong by betting that people would pay for the convenience of downloading their favorite music to a handheld device. The process needed to be simple and the price perceived as fair, and to their credit Apple realized this and stuck to their guns.

But Apple wasn’t always as open as they liked to portray themselves. The tech industry as a whole had pretty much adapted MP3 as the file of choice for music downloads because they sounded reasonably good and could be downloaded fairly quickly over a high speed internet connection. But Apple used its own file format, AAC, and any tracks you downloaded from the iStore were AAC files. You could not use these files on MP3-based players like Music Match without first converting them from AAC files to MP3 files, which many users didn’t realize until they later tried to do so. You could solve this problem when you ripped files from your own CDs by setting the default file type for ripping to ‘MP3’ but again, some users didn’t fully understand this at first. 

That attempt at nudging users into their proprietary file format was enough to break the spell for me. When my iPod mini malfunctioned in the early 2010s, I chose not to replace it with another iPod, but instead with the SanDisk Sansa, which was the iPod’s closest rival. In fact, I still have a functioning Sansa that I’ll occasionally fire up for a walk around the neighborhood. But soon enough all of these devices were supplanted by my first smart phone, onto which I downloaded a ton of music. My current phone doesn’t have any downloaded music, instead I stream music on the go via Qobuz, but I listen to CDs in the car and at home it’s a mix of CDs, vinyl, cassette, hard drive, and some streaming. 

And so we say farewell to the iPod and consign it to the ice floe of history along with previous musical storage media such as 8 Tracks, cassettes, DAT, and the beloved vinyl. But rest assured that someone, somewhere, is still using any previous technology whether out of preference or genuine necessity because, as Steve Jobs so correctly said, music knows no boundaries.

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