Farewell iPod, and thanks for all the musical memories

Karlin Lillington: Now it’s hard to convey just how unique it felt to own one

The writing was on the wall for ages and it should have come as no surprise. Yet the announcement from Apple last week that the iPod was officially a “discontinued product” still came as a little kick to the gut, a reminder that I was old enough to have lived through so many generations of iPods and to qualify as a tech Methuselah. Alas, I am now of the discontinued iconic Apple product demographic.

Introduced in 2001, apparently dubbed iPod because it looked a bit like the pod door that cranky computer Hal refused to open for increasingly alarmed astronaut Dave in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, iPod was quickly a hit for a still-beleaguered Apple gradually stepping back from the brink of collapse.

The iPod was cheeky tech bravado, a bold statement for the new Millennium, an extraordinary melding of design and function. In particular, the first and second generation white iPods with the scroll wheel, released in 2001 and 2002, were things of digital beauty. They looked like something Dave might have carried and, if so inclined, played “Daisy, Daisy” on, if Hal’s famous rendition lacked appeal.

Weak-kneed devotion

I ended up owning a few of the little music players over the iPod’s 21-year lifespan and I still have them all upstairs in a drawer because I confess that I’m too attached to consign them to recycling. They were the first tech gadgets that I truly loved, with all the weak-kneed devotion that could manifest only in a person who came of age in the Walkman era.

You know who you are, my fellow travellers, and understand that love/hate Walkman relationship. The plus: portable personal music instead of a transistor radio! Oh, the Walkman was wonderful in its time, but also a pain. Owning one also required a big backpack to accommodate the variety of cassette tapes that had to be lugged about to satisfy the potential musical whims that might arise on any given day.

Then there was the mournfully regular loss of a favourite tape, eaten unceremoniously by the Walkman, or accidentally ejected out of an inadequately closed cassette case into the bottom of the backpack, to be annihilated by lint and grunge and the odd angular object. Oh, the tinny sound of those cheap early over-ear headphones. But it was music, your own music, in stereo, on the go.

Then came iPod (Steve Jobs always eschewed any “the”). It was the first of the magical Apple 21st century i-trio of iPod, iPhone and iPad. Yes, there were already other digital music players on the market, but they could hold only a modest number of songs, though that was exciting enough compared to the bulky accoutrements of the Walkman years.

iPod blew them all away. Even the first 5GB iteration (which seemed endless storage at the time) could hold a thousand songs, as Jobs bragged in his sales pitch. Instead of 100 of tapes or CDs, that pocket sized device and its unusual, stand-out white headphones could carry several shelves of a music collection. I needed one ASAP.

My first iPod was the second generation scroll wheel white device released in 2002. I got it at a massive discount on some special deal from Apple when I bought a new Mac laptop, a soon-to-be-typical price cut when a new Apple product was coming, in this case, a third generation touch-wheel model to replace the scroll wheel, though no one knew that at the time.

Confessional session

Oh, how I loved that iPod. Now, in a time of ubiquitous Apple devices and portable, digital everything, it’s hard to convey just how unique it felt to own one, and how rare to see anyone else, anywhere, in those tell-tale white in-ear headphones. I once boarded a plane and was seated next to a guy who also had that unmistakable headset and it felt like a secret society meeting. We took our headphones out of our ears and had a happy Apple confessional session. We couldn’t believe that out of all those other, iPod-less passengers on board, we, the specially-endowed, somehow had been seated together.

Jump ahead a decade, and easily dozens on any plane would be listening to an iPod – or increasingly, the device that would do it in, the iPhone. As a friend who worked directly for Jobs would later tell me, the iPod was really only Jobs’ stopgap on the way to a device that would combine phone, music, video and lots of little applications (or “apps”) on a single device. Jobs thought it a waste of pocket space to have to carry two devices when one could do it all. So, eventually, did the rest of us; hence iPod’s demise.

But in 2002, as I sat on that plane in an iPod conclave with a stranger, Apple was still very much a smallish church retaining mostly only the longtime members, and the general view was that Jobs was unlikely to successfully re-invigorate the struggling firm.

Oh we of little faith. The iPod was a sign. How little did we know.