The iPod was my last physical connection to music

Apple has discontinued the iPod Nano and iPod Shuffle. There wasn’t much fanfare; it was a pretty quiet ending, when you consider that these devices defined a generation and changed the way we listen to music.

It’s utterly unsurprising that Apple made this move — after all, they discontinued the iPod classic back in 2014. There’s just not a need for these devices anymore. With the dawn of the streaming music era, why would you need to carry a physical version of your music collection?

The Nano and the Shuffle were the smaller versions of their original big brother. The larger iPod (remember the days before it even had a click wheel?) was to carry your entire music library — the Nano and Shuffle were just for a taste, the amuse bouche of your tunes. Whether you were listening with those trademark white earbuds or through an unwieldy FM transmitter in your car, with your iPod snugly in its sock, for a bright moment the way we listened to music was at the center of our culture.

It’s almost funny, then, that Apple itself is responsible for making its own devices obsolete. When they first introduced the iPod, and later the iTunes Store, they triggered a sea change in the way my generation interacted with music. It wasn’t just something we listened to, it was something we experienced. But slowly, as our sights shifted from buying digitally to streaming, iPods became less important. Apple pivoted the music industry towards streaming. It’s the natural end to a shift that happened almost two decades ago, and it sowed the seeds for the obsolescence of the iPod.

And yet, for those of us who remember binders upon binders of CDs, this is a sad day. The end of the iPod as we know it is more than just the discontinuation a device. It’s an acceptance that the heady days of my youth, when I agonized over music selection, are over.

I used to painstakingly curate my library; it was something I shared with pride. There was a song for every occasion, whether to describe my current emotions or for a deeper peek into my very identity. Music spoke to me; it defined me. But as I came into adulthood, with all the responsibilities that went along with it, my interest in music slowly dwindled. I didn’t have time for all the passions of my youth, and frankly, it was much easier to listen to a pre-selected playlist on Spotify than to carefully curate my library and explore new artists. I always thought it was a temporary thing, though, that one day, music would return to its pedestal in my life. But now, I realize that day will never come.

The truth is, streaming music has made it so much easier to be a music fan. Virtually every song I could want to listen to is at my fingertips. But there’s something lacking about it. By granting me the ability to listen to everything I want, streaming music has taken something vital away: the hunt, the quest, the sense of triumph that comes with discovering that amazing new band that gets you.

C43363_1HDon’t misunderstand me: I’m not nostalgic about the days of screaming at my iPod as it laboriously synced with iTunes. I don’t miss hitting the bottom of the device against something every time it displayed the Apple screen of death (something to do with the hard drive connections being loose?) I don’t even miss the hours I used to spend looking through music websites to find new artists I might want to listen to. Technology and discovery are so much better these days.

What I miss is something much more personal, a reflection of myself rather than of a device. I miss wanting to do these things. I miss caring enough about music to spend time and energy on it. I miss it having a place at the center of my life, as the key to my identity. I miss valuing it because it made me work for it. The music is still there. It’s my relationship with it that I find wanting.

For many who still collect CDs and vinyl, there is still that physical connection to your music. But for the rest of us, the iPod was the last remnant of that era. It was the tangible embodiment of what our music meant to us, but it’s also the reason we no longer have that connection.

Yes, the iPod Touch is still around, and of course I can load up my iPhone if the mood strikes me. But it seems almost poetic that the device that was the first nail in the coffin for the standalone iPod, the iPhone, doesn’t even have a headphone jack anymore. Technology is changing and evolving, and that’s a good thing. Soon, I’ll forget about my iPod nostalgia and move onto other, better things. But just for this moment, I’m going to choose to remember a time when the iPod taught me that music was all I needed.

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iPod marks its 15th birthday in a changed world

If you’re a gadget fan of a certain age (cough), you’re about to feel ancient: Apple’s iPod just turned 15 years old. Steve Jobs unveiled the first version of the media player at an event on Apple’s campus on October 23rd, 2001. To say that it had a wild ride after that would be an understatement. Many credit the iPod as the device that took Apple from niche PC maker to one of the largest companies on the planet, only to fade away as smartphones took over. But how did it get to where it is now? And is there any room left for the iPod 15 years later? Let’s take a quick look back at how the iPod has evolved through the years.

We like to think of the iPod’s 2001 introduction as a watershed moment these days, but at the time it left many scratching their heads. This was a risky side project for a company that had been on the brink of oblivion just a few years earlier, and the number of caveats seemed to be a mile long. Mac-only, a $ 399 price and ‘just’ 5GB of storage? Many didn’t expect it to sell well… and for the first couple of years, it didn’t. While the iPod found an audience among the faithful, those steep initial requirements ruled out both Windows users (even the 2002 model’s Windows support was a kludge) and many casual Mac listeners. Competitors like Creative and Rio had little to fear at first. Still, it was a glimpse at a future where you could quickly and easily sync your whole music collection in a device that fits in your pocket. Existing MP3 players like the Creative Nomad series or Rio’s PMP300 tended to be huge, slow or both, with software that made syncing a challenge.

But then something happened. In 2003, Apple not only released an iPod built with Windows users in mind, but launched both iTunes for Windows and the iTunes Music Store. It was as if a puzzle had been solved. Suddenly, most computer users could buy whatever songs they liked, sync them with an iPod, and start listening within a few minutes — no CD ripping or dodgy peer-to-peer sites required. It’s easy to complain about how unwieldy iTunes can be today, but it was a minor revelation at a time when most MP3 players had truly clunky sync processes and few (if any) ways to integrate with digital music services.

And for the next few years, it seemed as if Apple could do no wrong. iPod sales exploded, helped in no small part by falling prices and more accessible models. The iPod mini, shuffle and nano transformed the device from a near-luxury item into something virtually anyone could own. Apple grabbed such a dominant foothold in the market that no competitors posed more than a temporary threat. Even Microsoft’s Zune, with its iPod-like software integration and gobs of marketing money, couldn’t loosen Apple’s grip. The iPod’s white earbuds (and the matching silhouette ads) became iconic. With the help of iTunes, it ushered in an era where digital music was an everyday fact of life instead of a novelty. Podcasts owe both their success and very name to Apple’s pocket player — you wouldn’t be listening to Serial otherwise.

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All technology has a finite lifespan, though, and Apple took the relatively radical step of hastening the iPod’s demise itself. When Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January 2007, he wasn’t shy about treating it as a do-it-all device that could help you avoid buying an iPod. Why get something separate when all your music can live on the phone you’re already carrying? The media player soldiered on for a while, in part thanks to the iPod touch (which satisfied the urge if you couldn’t buy an iPhone), but its days were clearly numbered. It’s telling that Apple unveiled the first iPod classic mere months after the iPhone arrived, indicating that the days of music-first hardware were coming to an end.

You may well know what happened next. Modern smartphones, including the iPhone, rendered dedicated players almost obsolete within just a few years. Apple increasingly shifted the iPod toward niche uses like fitness (the current iPod nano and shuffle are practically designed for runners) and away from the mainstream. Sales fell from nearly 55 million iPods per year in 2008 to a number so low that Apple no longer breaks them out in its fiscal results. To compound matters, streaming music has practically eliminated the need for a tiny jukebox. You don’t need capacious storage when you can listen to seemingly everything on services like Spotify or Apple Music. The death of the iPod classic in 2014 was less of a tragedy and more a sign of progress, when you think about it.

Earns Apple

As such, the iPod at 15 is really in its twilight years. There’s just not much room for it. Unless you need a mountain of offline music without paying a premium, you’re usually better off using your phone. It can access a wide array of services, and you don’t have to sync it with a computer. Even the iPod nano and shuffle are facing pressure from smartwatches, which can hold or stream enough music to last your whole run.

This isn’t to say that the iPod is a footnote in history, however. In hindsight, it was a stepping stone — a way of leaving CD players and record stores behind in favor of a world where any song you want is just a heartbeat away, wherever you are. You can also see it as ushering in the mobile revolution, since the iPod’s success helped drum up interest in the iPhone and other smartphones that weren’t just about checking email or making calls. As sad as it is to see the iPod treated like an afterthought today, there’s no question that its legacy will last well beyond the day the last units leave store shelves.

Image credits: Reuters/Mike Blake; AP Photo/Eric Risberg

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