For a generation of people who lived, worked, and grew up in the 2000s, the word “iPod” was synonymous with music. Escaping the sight of those white ear buds was nearly impossible. And despite the speed with which smartphones took over our lives, Apple kept making its digital media players without much fuss.
In a statement Tuesday, the company said it would continue selling the seventh-generation iPod touch “while supplies last” — a quiet confirmation that the age of the iPod may finally be over.
The move, while bittersweet for techies of a certain age, didn’t come entirely by surprise. For years, Apple has slowly culled its line of portable media machines: the last iPod with the classic click-wheel was discontinued in 2014, and the once-popular iPod nano followed-suit three years later.
“Today, the spirit of iPod lives on,” Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, Greg Joswiak, said. “We’ve integrated an incredible music experience across all of our products, from the iPhone to the Apple Watch to HomePod mini, and across Mac, iPad, and Apple TV.”
Right now, the thought of a single-purpose device like the iPod can feel hopelessly passe. To an extent, Apple felt the same. The original models only played music we purchased, ripped and pirated, but they were followed by versions that played videos and, eventually, the touch-screen models that persisted up to this week. But even though iPods were eventually (and completely) overshadowed by the iPhone, it’s hard to overstate the impact they had on the company — and the people who used them.
These days, Apple is worth over $2 trillion and directs its attention to everything from computer-processor design to Oscar-worthy movie production. In the years leading up to the original iPod’s release, however, Apple was only just emerging from what iPod creator Tony Fadell called a “death spiral” in his new book.
After a string of not-quite-right leaders, prodigal CEO Steve Jobs returned to the company and shook up its computer lineup with a slew of cheap, colorful iMacs in 1998. Then came similarly cheery iBooks a year later. But it was arguably the first iPod, unveiled in October 2001, that set a revived Apple down a different path — one that cemented its place in people’s pockets, not just on their desks.
In the past, Apple had dabbled with other super portable gadgets, like some ill-fated digital cameras and the early PDA whose lasting legacy was a throwaway joke on “The Simpsons.” But according to Leander Kahney, author of the book “The Cult of iPod,” the company’s first MP3 player was different.
“It really was a marvelous gadget,” he told The Washington Post. “So easy to use and the source of so much joy and pleasure — because of the music it contained, of course. And it was the product that totally transformed Apple, laid the groundwork for the iPhone and kick-started massive growth.”
Over the two decades that followed, Apple collectively released more than two dozen iPod models, not including the variants with different amounts of storage space. And during the iPod’s tenure, countless tech trends have come and gone — here’s looking at you, netbooks and 3D TVs. That’s just how it goes in an industry where a company is only as good as its next product.
But even though the last iPods Apple ever plans to make are on sale now, it seems unlikely those devices will completely disappear from the cultural consciousness anytime soon.
“I didn’t have an iPod growing up,” said Bee Shipinski, a 19-year-old student in Boise, Idaho, born after Apple’s first iPod announcement. “They were really expensive.” But a tendency toward tinkering — plus frequent childhood exposure to those dancing silhouette commercials — helped turn Shipinski into a fan of dedicated music machines.
“With an iPod, all it does is play music. It doesn’t care about an Internet connection, it doesn’t care about a license,” Shipinski, who uses they/them pronouns, said. “It looks for the files, reads them, and it’s like, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play your music, and we’re going to play it really d--- well.’ ”
Rather than venture into the calculated slickness of an Apple store, Shipinski bought their first iPods in a thrift store in 2019 and eventually decided to crack open the newer one for fun. With help from a repair guide from a YouTuber called DankPods — who has amassed a following of more than 1 million subscribers interested in iPods and other early 2000s music players — Shipinski made their first modifications, or “mods.”
Shipinski isn’t alone. They’re one of a growing flock of people who have begun repairing and, in some cases, upgrading old iPods to work better than they ever could before. Rather than old, relatively delicate hard drives, these tweaked models have been modified to read music off cheap, roomy SD cards. And according to “Leek Soup” — a.k.a. Adam Warner, a 17-year-old from West Cork, Ireland, I met in a Discord channel for iPod fans — people often install bigger batteries into the space those hard drives used to take up.
“Other mods include personalizing the exterior of the iPod with different colored faceplates, click wheels and rear cases,” Warner said. “People have also installed taptic engines from iPhones into [old iPods], to give a bit of tactile feedback.”
So, yes, Apple’s announcement does officially mark the end of an era. But judging by the many models on sale on eBay, and the enthusiasm a new generation of fans have for making them better, it may be a while — if ever — before people finally have to move on from their precious iPods.