Amidst all the commotion over the announcement of a slightly pricier iPhone and an essentially useless new smartwatch, last week also witnessed the quiet passing of one of music’s greatest ever technological innovations. Piers Barber pays tribute to the iPod Classic.
Earlier this week, with the rest of the world distracted by the glitzy and highly tedious presentation that brought the iPhone 6 into the world, several dedicated Apple employees were busy quietly deleting some web pages and deftly re-directing some hyperlinks: the iPod Classic, it turned out, was dead.
To the likes of Elvis, Kraftwerk and DJ Kool Herc we must surely add the iPod Classic – known, in its earliest form, simply as the iPod – to the list of great musical innovators. This was Apple’s most original product; the combination of hard-drive and click-wheel in a moment of mad genius that almost single-handedly secured the company a permanent place in the hearts and minds of millions. Now it is gone.
Sure, the iPod lives on in name, but only in an assortment of incongruent, slightly silly products: the iPod Touch, essentially an iPhone without the phone; the limited Nano; the pointlessly small Shuffle. Without their respected older brother, the range looks all the more odd.
Thousands snapped up the original iPod in 2001 with the late Steve Jobs’ ground breaking promise – to put “your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go” – still ringing in their ears. Priced at almost $400, its specs were charmingly crude: a 5GB hard drive capable of storing 1,000 songs and a click wheel that actually moved when you turned it. As it turned out, it was a device that signalled the dawn of a new musical age.
The iPod’s surge in popularity played a vital role in music’s era-defining shift from physical to digital. It was the first device to make the idea of taking all your music wherever you go a reality and became the dominant platform for the bizarre new concept of the mp3 format. Can’t decide which record to take with you on holiday? With the iPod, you could take thousands, and carry them all around in your pocket to boot.
It also almost single-handedly brought about the rise of music downloading – legal and illegal – and the rise of the single as the most important form of musical release. Vitally, it also popularised the notion of the playlist. Now, your music collection could be finely tuned to provide the perfect soundtrack to any scenario: revision, exercise, making dinner, being dumped.
The iPod went through a series of makeovers, but its design remained consistent, iconic and cool: those white headphones, the chkchkchkchking clickwheel, the slight weightiness – a nod, I like to think, to its profound importance to its owner’s life. Technically, it was a magnificent achievement. The clickwheel was not only a brilliantly marketable and instantly recognisable feature – it was was also a supremely fast and accurate bit of tech that made it easier than any time before or since to single out a song or artist from a collection of thousands in seconds.
Ardent music collectors will miss one characteristic beyond all others: it’s unrivalled storage size. By the time it was last updated in 2009, the largest Classic could hold up to 160GB of music. Now, the largest portable Apple product is the Touch, at 64GB, or the iPhone 6 Plus, which will set you back a cool £699 if you want to enjoy its maximum capacity of 128GB. The Shuffle and Nano, meanwhile, boast just 2GB and 16GB of memory respectably.
It means the end of one of the iPod’s greatest traits: unrivalled, indiscriminate portability of your entire music collection. So no more luxury hoardings of all the original Boiler Room podcasts; no chance of carrying the entire Beatles and Rolling Stones discographies in your pocket; no on-the-spot ability to start up a random edition of Football Weekly from midway through the 2008/9 season.
It seems odd that, in a world where technology is supposed to be freeing us from restrictions, Apple now asks us to select a a finite amount of music to take on the road with us, a collection that occasionally even requires the internet to play. The iPod gave us unlimited control over a tangible and personal collection of your music – not the internet’s. A detailed examination of a friend’s playlists or Top 25 Most Played was a crystal-clear window into their very soul.
It’s not been a totally fault-free ride – few can forget, for example, that monstrous red and black edition that came with each member of U2’s signatures carved into the back. Its hard drive technology also admittedly made it distressingly prone to non-resolvable breakdowns. More seriously, its rise in turn played a major role in the death of the album as an art form, the rise of illegal downloads and the death of CDs and record stores – the slow destruction, indeed, of the concept of music as a physical entity.
In a world where any gadget lacking in an internet connection is deemed useless, the Classic’s retirement has been on the horizon for a number of years. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye to one of the most important gadgets in the history of music. As with many treasured objects that technology’s relentless forward march increasingly renders obsolete, it’s a genuine shame that it has to be this way.