Tim Tan Huynh

The iPod

23 Oct 2014

Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod on this day 13 years ago. Devices that only play and capture media are less relevant these days, thanks to the rise of smartphones, but the original iPod marks the beginning of an incredible run for Apple.

I am definitely not a fanboy of Steve Jobs or Apple. I got my only iPod in 2006 as a Christmas present and I got my first iPhone, a used 5S model no less, a few days ago. I think some of the fanaticism over Apple products, new or revised, is ridiculous. However, I have to tip my proverbial hat to the early-millennium cultural phenomenon that is the iPod.

I remember the hype, but I also remember this comic. The only reason I know the iPod “turns 13″ today is because of Time. The presentation video embedded in the article is interesting to me, mainly because I’ve never actually seen Steve Jobs do his thing. He’s surprisingly humble and not brash in this presentation, though I now realize that allegedly-narcissistic business tycoons must know how and when to put on a good face.

Besides his weird pronunciation of “automatically,” Jobs does well. His buildup and explanations are easy to understand, and he does them without notes. Maybe he has a teleprompter out of view, but I’ll give him benefit of the doubt. I like the low-key atmosphere as well; it looks and feels like an undergrad lecture instead of a convention event. The huge Apple keynotes would happen later, though the now-famous black turtleneck and blue jeans are here.

As for the product itself, the modern Apple style is evident, even though I think it looks ugly by today’s standards. The body is too fat, the display color is too muddy, the UI typeface is too outdated, and the scroll-wheel buttons are too high. Apple design guru Jonathan Ive probably dislikes the same things as me because subsequent models fix all of these issues.

Of course, the features and functionality are more important. If you can ignore the $400 suggested price, Steve Jobs and Apple did well to make the iPod so convenient, portable, and robust from the beginning. I resisted getting an iPod for a few years, and below are the selling points that won me over.

  1. Efficient playback control and library navigation — I had an MP3 player that only held around 12 songs. Its small display couldn’t list the songs, so selecting a particular song at any given time wasn’t possible. In contrast, the iPod scroll-wheel and the newer, streamlined click-wheel is a shining example of mechanical design.
  2. Import music from CDs — I wrongly assumed the iPod only played music from iTunes. I think Apple should have made this feature more prominent in their advertising and marketing.
  3. Built-in rechargeable battery — My old MP3 player went through AAA batteries, so being able to charge an iPod via my computer, which was always turned on anyway, was the tipping point.

I never replaced my second-generation, four-gigabyte silver iPod Nano when its battery died a couple of years ago. Maybe the death of my iPod coincides with the death, or near-death, of all iPods and other portable media-players. I assume most people have smartphones and use them for music on the go, but some people still use iPods for exercising, right? For health and safety reasons though, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The iPhone might have rendered the iPod obsolete, but I believe the runaway success of the latter had strengthened Apple enough, both financially and psychologically, to develop the former. In his iPod presentation, Steve Jobs doesn’t mention anything about phones. Who, outside the Apple inner circle, knows if iPhone development had been a foregone conclusion at this point?

Maybe it’s better to think of the iPod as a dog: for all intents and purposes, it’s older than its actual existence. Maybe in tech years, the iPod is like 75 years old with a remaining life expectancy of two or three human years. Fanboy or not, I can admit that the day the iPod gets put down will be a bit sad.