If you know what the correlation between an audio cassette and a pen / pencil is, well, let’s just say that you’re not young anymore. You will remember what a pain it was to laboriously wind the tape back in with a pen when it spilled out of the cassette, as it invariably would. You might even have memories of lugging a Discman around. That clunky gadget was in vogue in the last century having replaced the walkman, but today, it seems as uncool as a person going for a day trip carrying a suitcase full of clothes. Then came the portable MP3 player and for a while, they made sense. We no longer had to spend time sifting through CDs we’d ripped (remember that word?) Before stepping out of home. But all these gadgets were eventually consigned to the dustbins of history after Apple wiped the floor clean with the competition in 2001, when it launched the iPod. “Listening to music will never be the same again,” the firm’s then-CEO, Steve Jobs, had stated, and it really does take a visionary like him to encapsulate the future in such simple words.
But the future, as it stands at present, has no place for the iPod. The death knell has been sounded on the revolutionary gadget. This week, Apple announced that it’s discontinuing production of the iPod Touch, the last iteration of an MP3 player that was to the world of music what Elvis Presley was to rock ‘n’ roll in particular – a disruptor. Twenty-one years, that’s how long this gadget soldiered on as the zeitgeist changed from DVD players to a “Netflix and chill” era. And as it is with writing an obituary for a famous person, its demise gives us an opportunity to reflect on the real impact it left on the industry. Was “listening to music never the same again”? Did it indeed change consumption patterns forever?
The short answer, really, is, “Duh!”
Chances are that you’re reading this article on a smartphone. Somewhere in there, you’ve downloaded music-streaming apps like YouTube or Spotify. In them, you have picked out artists you like – be it Depeche Mode, Doja Cat or Diljit Dosanjh – to customize your own playlist. But go back to the origin of that word, ‘playlist.’ It was the iPod that truly crystallized the habit in listeners of downloading different songs and packing them neatly into different compartments, like you’d do with socks and underwear in your cupboard drawers. Before that, you’d have to buy blank cassettes to record music on or burn CDs, which gave you the option of only a limited number of tracks. But with the iPod, the playing field broadened to include thousands of tunes. We were suddenly spoiled for choice – it was like moving from eating two square meals a day to choosing from a 100-dish buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But ironically, it is the birth of the smartphone that led to the death of the iPod. Why would anyone carry two gadgets in their pockets when one can do the job of the other? Apple did try to incorporate phone features in the iPod (and in many ways, it is the precursor of the iPhone). But they reached a fairly poor level of success and eventually, the tech wizards at the company put their wands down in despair. The upper management thus decided to pull the plug on the gadget. And that, pretty much, was that, because the iPod will soon be buried in the same graveyard where the walkman and Discman are.
What we are ultimately left with are the memories. Everyone who owned one has their own iPod story. I asked a colleague what color her iPod Classic di lei was and she replied, “Black, like my soul.” My own story involves running like mad to hop on to a long-distance train I was horribly late for and then skipping a heartbeat when a bright-pink iPod Mini jumped out of my half-open backpack, smashed against the side of the train and bounced back on to platform, from where I picked it up (but since it belonged to my then-girlfriend-now-wife, the less I elaborate on this incident the better). Nostalgia is a dish that’s best served warm. Like it is with double-decker buses and tutti-frutti ice creams, we get a fuzzy feeling when we think of these remnants of the past. That’s exactly what the iPod, too, is slated to become. But there’s no doubt that its legacy – like that of its late founder, Steve Jobs – will continue to influence generations to come.