On this somber day, let's not bid the iPod a tearful goodbye. Granted, the iPod isn't technically dead, assuming all 240 million iPods in the wild didn't crash in the past few days. But there's good reason to dress in black and say goodbye—just like we did to its parents.
At Apple's iPad reveal in January, new features and technology lit up fans and detractors alike. But where was the music? Gone. Silent. As if somebody declared, "Mission complete." With its millions of credit-card-sized soldiers in the field, entrenched in fortified installations of iTunes, Apple appears to have called off the onslaught, basking in victory. As a result, 2010 marks the year that the iPod—and its music-specific siblings in kind—finally blends into our lives as another object to be taken for granted.
To that point, comedian Patton Oswalt recently described a fantasy of going back in time to astound his younger self. The punchline: He'd only need to travel ten years. The joke opened with a music angle, as the time-traveler targeted past-Patton's Walkman: "Take that tape cassette out. Snap it in two! That's what you'll listen to music on. It'll be that big." He then colorfully described the number of songs an iPod holds ("every song you'll ever hear") and the price ("they fucking give those away"), only to surprise his past self with an abrupt conclusion: "[The iPod is] a miracle and no one cares."
Funny, sure, but Oswalt's right. Not even a decade after the iPod debuted, we walk around with earbuds wedged into our brains as if they're a birthright. Armed with iPods, we've unwillingly entered a new era of music consumption. For proof, try buying an album for a friend as a gift. Headphones clamped onto my ears, I walked into a record store recently to pick up a copy of Teen Dream, the latest album from Baltimore indie-pop duo Beach House. The purchase was symbolic; I'd had the dreamy, beautiful record on repeat for months thanks to an early Internet leak, and with a tap of a button in my pocket, I could have listened to opening song "Zebra" while I paid for it.
The only weirder part came in deciding whether to pick up a second copy as a friend's birthday gift. I wanted to imagine a scene in which the album was torn open, looked at fondly, and thrown into a CD stereo for immediate consumption.
But I knew better. For many people—myself included—a CD is an extra step in getting the songs onto an iPod, and its case is another piece of plastic for the box of old albums in a closet. Open, "rip" to MP3, toss, yawn. Perhaps the large vinyl edition with its looming, blurry cover art would turn out a better gift. Then again, the birthday girl had given up on her turntable years ago in favor of her all-in-one iPod stereo, where she'd undoubtedly absorb a new album as a fragmented piece of her random-play "shuffle" obsession. Teen Dream's particular pacing—winding from the young-love excitement of opener "Zebra" to the bittersweet, loss-tinged pining of final song "Take Care"—would be punctured by the rest of her collection.
I picked up the vinyl anyway, since it came with an MP3 download coupon. If I was only giving an MP3 gift certificate, I'd at least put it in a vinyl-sized "card."
Not that this birthday gift implosion is all Apple's doing. MP3-playing rivals came before and after the iPod—lots of them. But Apple has set our listening pace since 2001 by adding seemingly revelatory features every time a new iPod showed up. First, we gawked at the credit-card sized music library. Then, the tiny Nano editions rendered old DiscMan "anti-skip" buttons obsolete, making iPods our de facto workout DJs. From there, we got better touch wheels to browse through those thousands of songs, the option—or in some cases, the requirement—to shuffle our libraries, bigger screens to add video to our diversions, and an entire phone to attach to the iPod concept, embracing a certain inevitability.
Inevitability of what? That the iPod would stop being a special thing. As such, January 24th's much-ballyhooed iPad event was the first iPod funeral. At that reveal, candy-colored silhouettes didn't dance around the screen using the iPad's touted features, like eBooks, new Apps, or screen-filling touch keyboards. In fact, rarely did the event show any once-iconic earbuds in use. Apple, quite visibly, had moved on from the iPod.
Music consumption lays forever changed in the iPod's wake; no 8-year storm could have so much impact again, especially since its biggest result is that every pocket-sized device now comes with MP3 playback. The idea of holding a cell phone in one hand and a music player in the other will become an antiquated laugh soon enough. With that smug knowledge, Apple blows forward to do the same thing with everything else we consume—whittling down our books, movies, and apps into puzzle pieces that bounce out of order when we drag our fingers across touch screens.