While the pace of technology can seem sloggish when we're on the third year of similar smartphone designs, it sometimes takes a step back to make you realize just how much has changed. Fifteen years ago, I was in my first year of high school and the web was still considered more of a geeky fascination than mainstream success. It was the age of Neopets and Napster for those of us lucky enough to score fast internet connections and personal computer time, and if you wanted music in your pocket, you either were nerdy enough to have invested in a MiniDisc player, or (more likely) you shoved a Walkman into a bookbag.
That year, I was the first person at my high school to own an iPod. I can't remember why my father was gracious enough to gift me one of the plastic-and-steel music players — my birthday was months away at that point — though I suspect it may have been a result of constant hint-dropping. And, hey: My dad has always been an Apple enthusiast at his core. He may have initially bought the iPod for his own uses, only to have me reconfigure it for my own day-to-day life.
Whatever the reason, that iPod quickly became one of my most prized possessions next to my iBook (also pretty new). I showed it off to anyone and everyone who would listen, proudly proclaiming its superiority over the Walkman and, to a friend's amusement, his paltry 32MB Rio PMP300. (We made a bet on the bus one day about which music player would end up a mainstay in five years which I never collected on — largely because him listening to at least three months of Apple braggadocio and remaining my friend was enough payment.)
As someone who loved music and scored soundtracks in her head, the iPod was a revelation: It made even the most mundane of tasks something special. It proved useful in school, too, letting me rehearse for plays by reading along to MP3s of recorded scripts. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it helped spur a growing interest in consumer technology and gave me my first avenue in educating and helping people with their devices.
I had many Apple devices before the original iPod and have purchased many more since, but it's perhaps telling that its 5GB steel shell remains in a cherished place on my desk, 15 years later. It wasn't just software that made the iPod successful — while dated, its design remains one of my all-time favorites. I'd spin that click-wheel to mitigate stress, or while thinking up something to write, or simply because it was there in my pocket and I wanted something to occupy my hands. Spoiler: It still spins today. It even boots up, though its battery is long past the point of holding more than a few minutes' charge.
But this little white rectangle is responsible for pretty much every pocket-sized product Apple has produced since. Jason Snell said it best in his (now ten year old) five-year-reflection on the iPod for Macworld:
Holding one of those first-generation iPods in my hands today, it's striking just how much the iPod hasn't changed in five years. It's still a white block with a stainless steel back. Sure, the details have evolved: the edges were sharp, but now are smooth; the screen is now colorful and capable of displaying photos and videos; the scroll wheel doesn't physically move anymore. But that original iPod—with its 5GB hard drive, full-sized FireWire port, and $399 price tag—got a remarkable number of details right the very first time. No wonder it became such a success.
The iPod amplified Apple's brand into the mainstream, giving many users a chance to enter the company's ecosystem for the first time. From there, the "halo effect" took hold — it wasn't hard to love a Mac once you got used to that simple little rectangle. (And for all the flack iTunes rightfully gets now, in the mid-2000s, it and the iPod made adding music blissfully simple, where other products felt clunky and complicated.)
Over the years, the iPod has ceded its position to the iPhone; in 2016, the idea of a device that only does music seems almost ridiculous. ("No GPS? No headphones-as-MP3-player? No step tracker?") But fifteen years ago, that idea was revolutionary enough to help bring about the modern age of portable devices. The iPod rightfully deserves its place on my desk — and in the cabinet of technology history.
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