Have you ever
loved a car? Maybe it was an old truck you drove for hundreds of thousands of
miles, or maybe it was your very first car: where you had your very first beer
and your very first kiss. You can love a car and keep on loving it as long as
you don’t crash it. If you’re willing to maintain it, you can keep driving it
basically forever. Maybe some day it’ll be old enough that you’ll get
thumbs-ups from cool kids as you putter down the street in your charmingly
vintage car. This is not the case with gadgets—even though, for many of us, our
old gadgets were way more imp
Gadgets come and
go from our lives. Technology marches forward so rapidly that even if you could
replace a broken part—which often you can’t—doing so just wouldn’t make any
sense. Other times, the networks and services those gadgets depend on to keep
running go away entirely. Gadgets die, even the on
When the 1990s were getting older, there was this crazy new music format called MP3. It wasn’t the greatest audio format, but it was good enough. It was compressed in such a way that it was easy to download, and yet sounded good to most normal people. Suddenly, you could download a whole album’s worth of music to your computer. And, for me at least, that music was free. (Because I stole it.)
Since its advent, recorded music had been a scarce commodity. You had to work hard to get money to pay for compact discs or cassettes or long play vinyl records. Even blank tapes cost money. That preciousness led to a kind of curation you don’t really see anymore. You had to make choices, because you couldn’t have it all. Your music collection defined you. It was your music.
But then the internet gave us FTP and then Napster and so, so many places to steal music. It fit so perfectly with the libertine zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium. Information wanted to be free! And music, organized into digital files, was just information. Now we could have it in limitless supply.
For most of us, MP3 was still a thing you played on your computer. There were a few attempts to liberate it—little flash players that would barely hold an album, or hard-drive based jukeboxes that were too big and too delicate to be useful. They were all awful.
Apple keynotes weren’t such a big deal back then. Sure, they were great. Steve Jobs was already doing the things he would become famous for doing, but back then he was mostly talking about Macs and OS X and software nobody except a handful of nerds cared about.
But that iPod event—the Apple “music” event—changed everything else that would come after, for Apple and the rest of us, too. Because like Steve Jobs said that day, with his dad jeans on, “you can fit your whole music library in your pocket. Never before possible.”
reporters came back with those little white MP3 players, and big boxes of
compact discs. See, Apple pre-loaded the music players—the iPods, but you knew
I was talking about iPods—with music from Real Bands. But they couldn’t legally
give out the iPods with MP3s unless they also purchased a copy of every CD. So
everyone got two copies of each album: on
Nobody had seen anything like it before. It had a 5GB hard drive packed into a device the size of a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t even know anyone was making hard drives that small. To get through all your songs, it had this wheel that let you click and click and clickckckckckckckckckckck your way through thousands and thousands of songs.
It cost $400. Out
of my price range, by a long shot. (I was a junior editor at Macworld trying to
pay rent in San Francisco.) But I saved and saved until I could afford on
Suddenly, they were everywhere. White earbuds on the bus. White earbuds on the plane. White earbuds on every street I walked down, in every city in America. Sometimes you’d go to a party, and the host would leave the iPod hooked up to the speakers, so everyone could take turns DJing. Click the wheel and rock the party.
There was a very real sense that Apple was abetting music piracy, which on
We made playlists that spoke to the lives we lived at the moment. Looking at someone’s iPod was like looking into their soul. In their music you could see who they were. You could tell if they were sophisticated or rough. You could see in their playlists the moments they fell in love and the moments they fell back out again. You could see the filthiest, nastiest hip hop in the little white boxes of the primmest people, and know their inner lives a little better than you did before.
For ten years my
iPod—in various incarnations—was my constant companion. It went with me on road
trips and backpacking through the wilderness. I ran with it. I swam with it.
(In a waterproof case!) I listened to sad songs that reminded me of friends and
family no longer with me. I made a playlist for my wife to listen to during the
birth of our first child, and took the iPod with us to the hospital. I took on
Everyone played everything again and again.
And now it’s dead. Gone from the Apple Store. Disappeared, while we were all looking at some glorified watch.
In all likelihood
we’re not just seeing the death of the iPod Classic, but the death of the
dedicated portable music player. Now it’s all phones and apps. Everything is a
camera. The single-use device is gone—and with it, the very notion of cool that
Soon there will
be no such thing as your music library. There will be no such thing as your
music. We had it all wrong! Information doesn’t want to be free, it wants to be
a commodity. It wants to be packaged into apps that differ on
There’s an iPod
Classic in the console of my car. It’s the third full-sized iPod that I’ve
owned, and if I could, I’d keep it forever. But there’s no way to maintain it,
not practically. On
I miss the time when we were still defined by our music. When our music was still our music. I miss being younger, with a head full of subversive ideas; white cables snaking down my neck, stolen songs in my pocket. There will never be an app for that.