Twenty years after the first iPod debuted, it’s hard to even find whether iPods exist anymore on Apple’s website. They do, technically: one iPod Touch remains. But really, iPods are kind of everywhere now. In 2021, Apple has atomized the iPod and spread its spirit around into everything else.
In the fall of 2001, I was living in Los Angeles in an apartment I shared in Sherman Oaks. I had just spent a month or so visiting my family in New York after 9/11. I don’t really have clear memories of much from the rest of that year. But there was an iPod, and it came out in October. And I bought one.
I had friends who had already been collecting MP3s on little hard-drive boxes for years. I sort of avoided the whole thing: I liked CDs, how I could own a disc, pop it in my car. The whole idea of the first iPod involving ripping music and loading things from your hard drive seemed…squirrely. But the feeling of carrying music around in a little box, once I did it, was comforting. I liked Palm Pilots. I liked Game Boys. I like having little worlds in my pocket.
The iPod is a throwback to different times, when that little world came from a single, simple gadget. The irony is the iPod created a foundation for Apple to build out different products and services, from the iPhone to AirPods and Apple TV Plus, all working together to form a much larger universe.
While the iPod was the center of Apple’s universe for nearly a decade — the little MP3 player turning the company’s fortunes around — its biggest legacy, of course, is the iPhone. Or all smartphones.
The iPod was really, more than anything else, about getting Apple off the desk or my backpack, and into my pocket. Apple was all of a sudden an intimate companion. That has grown into a universe that surrounds me, streaming video and music and iCloud storage working in tandem with the physical phone in my pocket and Apple Watch on my wrist, and AirPods in my ears.
But it all started with that simple iPod.
Enter the Watch
The iPod took the standard route of most electronics: It got smaller. The iPod Shuffle. The Nano. As the Nano got smaller, it even became a little square. People started clipping them into watch bands and using them as early smartwatches. That was me. I wore a Nano watch for years.
The Nano Watch predated the Apple Watch, and to me directly inspired it. The feel of glancing at it, playing music on it, even tracking workouts on it (through early features like Nike integration) were things that carried over.
After the Apple Watch debuted in 2015, all I could think about was comparing it to the Nano Watch. They even shared a Mickey Mouse watch face in common. It made me feel like I’d seen some of the future, or wrist-tested it. The rise of the Apple Watch neatly coincides with the slow downfall of the iPod Touch. Like the iPod, it’s an accessory. The iPod worked with a Mac, the Apple Watch with an iPhone. The iPod used to slide right into that $300-or-so gift territory. The Watch, to no surprise, slides into that same price point.
The Apple Watch is less a music player than everything else: fitness tracker, glanceable mini-screen, wrist portal to my phone life. But I still think of it as occupying the last place on my body where I ever used an iPod: my wrist.
AirPods: the Pod, shifted
You need something else to use the Apple Watch as a music player: AirPods. The product where the “pod” name returned again doesn’t feel at all like an accident. It loops everything back around. Maybe, in the long run, well after the Apple Watch, the AirPods are the true final successor to the iPod. No box, no wires. Just buds that connect to invisible things in the cloud, or elsewhere. Maybe if AirPods grew displays…would Apple name its smart glasses EyePods?
When I wore AirPods for the first time, I felt pretty ridiculous. Others seemed to agree. But I started to realize pretty quickly that it was how people perceived me wearing them that was the interesting part. I think it’s a symbol, maybe of living embedded in Apple’s connected world. Now that I’m surrounded by interconnected Apple devices and Apple subscription services, I think about it constantly.
I pop in my AirPods to listen to music. The HomePod does the same, but for connected speakers. The “Pod” name seems to have moved to the speaker-and-headphone market for now. But that connection may evolve over time.
Posters during the iPod era notably showed off people in silhouette, dancing with white wires and earbuds in their ears. Walking around with an iPod in your pocket, this was the sign you had an iPod in the first place. That ad campaign came back with AirPods: this time, the buds were everything. Or, Apple now assumes, you already had the other Apple devices to connect to, the spirit of the iPod already diffused everywhere.
For Apple, is “iPod” about music, or is it more?
Years later, I dig up my old iPods from time to time. Generally, they still work. Music’s still on there. They don’t care about updates or what’s been happening in the world since I first fired them up. The iPod is what the iPod is. It’s perpetually on but offline, as long as that battery holds up.
Apple makes devices, but really, it’s more about how they all work with each other now. And how those services are integrated into them. The era of individual gadgets may be over. It’s now a long, nested chain of accessories.
Appropriately enough, as I finish writing this story, I’m listening to Elton John’s “Chameleon.” Piped through my iPhone via Apple Music, up to AirPods, and displayed on the Apple Watch I’m glancing at as I type. There’s that iPod. Split apart into pieces, across my wrist, ears, cloud, pocket. It’ll never be as simple as that white box I loaded all my ripped CDs into.
But then again, what is anymore? As Apple possibly moves to smart glasses down the road, and a world where even more of what we use and love is virtualized, maybe the only thing that visibly remains will be those little white buds. Popping out of our ears, less visibly, as we look into the air at things no one else can see.