In the week after the death of Lou Ottens, a man responsible for not just the cassette tape but the compact disc – two formats that have so far lasted decades; one format which has been making an unlikely comeback too – it’s a bit unfair to put him in the same company as the iPod, but then it really emphasises the point of this question. Is there anything more obsolete than yesterday’s sensation?
Put it another way: there’s nothing like looking at something in your wardrobe, your bookshelf, your kitchen cupboard or the bottom drawer in the kitchen that no one sane goes to - that you almost certainly haven’t used since the second Punic War - and thinking “that used to be important, I can’t remember why”.
Ten years ago I was asked to write something marking the 10th anniversary of a device that had changed everything. Or at least a lot of things that mattered. Even then, with the iPod, there was more than a hint of – to paraphrase The West Wing, a show that was having its peak at the time this was launched – ok, what’s next?
It’s weirdly amusing to read now, when those of us with iPods are like antediluvian embarrassments (and even then we probably don’t use them that much even if we have a couple in our drawers), the simultaneous celebration and mourning of a piece of equipment and a way of life.
But hey, 2011 was like three lifetimes ago, right? As for 2001, ask your grandpa.
Let’s not get completely carried away with the iPod. It's not like compact, portable music was new.
The transistor radio helped create the go-anywhere teen of the 1960s and confirmed the single as the dominant way to bring music to young record buyers. In the early ‘80s the Walkman brought rhythm, if not necessarily dignity, to the gym nuts and amplified the idea of music as something that could be part of every aspect of your life. Then the Discman a few years later meant you could have that for a whopping 74 minutes of uninterrupted – as long as you didn’t move - music.
However, the story of the iPod is how it took everything we already knew and multiplied it, for both good and bad.
There was more music: the iPod was marketed initially as “1000 songs in your pocket" but it wasn’t long before you could have 5000, then 10,000 and more. There was more flexibility: you could have one that was perfect for your six-year-old, another you could pin to your shirt when jogging and a chunky one for long trips.
There was more variety: hit shuffle and the songs never played in the same order again; go online and hundreds of thousands of songs could be accessed. There were more colours!
Eventually of course there was ubiquity. Even some of us who resisted the clarion call – in my case aversion to its poor sound quality – succumbed when high quality headphones could be matched with the ease of this little box. Now like millions of others I can't imagine travelling, even on the bus from my home to the city, without it.
The thought that I might let someone else choose my music, in the supermarket as much as on the plane, seems bizarre.
But here's the thing. Like its ancestor the iMac, and its successor the iPhone, the iPod in name as much as actual behaviour, made the individual the centre of everything. As with any product from the house Jobs built, it didn’t initiate societal trends but it built on them, legitimised them and accelerated them.
In a world geared to individualism, the “i” was reflected in the “my” that any organisation, whether public or private, felt it necessary to rebrand. It was my music choice, my time, MyRTA, MySchool.
In really basic terms, the iPod helped the return of the single, in this case a downloaded individual song rather than an old 7-inch record, as the main currency of music. In more general, philosophical terms, it made it easier to forget about whom it was who had made the music and whatever rights they may have to be heard properly and along the way earn a living.
If the sound isn’t meant to be fabulous, just functional, if it's just one of thousands of songs on your player, hell if it’s not even a player now but a phone, what’s it matter if you bought it, copied it or just plain nicked it? Does it have any value at all beyond being “stuff” that’s on your latest iDevice? Is the iPod’s real legacy that it “celebrated” music so much it practically killed it?
That’s probably excessive. It’s just a tool and tools get replaced. Yes kids, even the iPhone will go. And there’s talk around that soon, better quality compression will mean higher quality sound and people might even start asking for speakers you actually want to listen to.
In any case the iPod revolution has already happened and we all plugged in. Happily.
The Top 25 downloaded songs on iTunes between 2001 and 2010: 1. Black Eyed Peas - 'I Gotta Feeling' 2. Lady GaGa - 'Poker Face' 3. Black Eyed Peas - 'Boom Boom Pow' 4. Jason Mraz - 'I'm Yours' 5. Coldplay - 'Viva la Vida' 6. Lady GaGa - 'Just Dance' 7. Flo Rida (feat. T-Pain) - 'Low ' 8. Taylor Swift - 'Love Story' 9. Leona Lewis - 'Bleeding Love' 10. Ke$ha - 'TiK ToK' 11. Rihanna - 'Disturbia' 12. Pink - 'So What' 13. Katy Perry - 'I Kissed a Girl' 14. Beyoncé - 'Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)' 15. Katy Perry - 'Hot N Cold' 16. Kanye West - 'Stronger' 17. T.I. (feat. Rihanna) - Live Your Life 18. Plain White T's - 'Hey There Delilah' 19. Flo Rida - 'Right Round' 20. Miley Cyrus - 'Party In the U.S.A.' 21. Journey - 'Don't Stop Believin'' 22. Lady GaGa - 'Bad Romance' 23. Kings Of Leon - 'Use Somebody' 24. Owl City - 'Fireflies' 25. The Fray - 'How to Save a Life'