It fit easily in the palm of my hand; this shiny black thingamajig that seemed too light, too small, too simple to do everything that it promised. Yet, the iPod Nano that I got in 2005, the first version of that model, changed the way I consumed music.
The iPod transformed music for many people, particularly for my generation—growing up in the '80s and '90s—that graduated from turntables, to cassettes and CDs before discovering music that could be downloaded. I was a student in the US then, homesick at times when my sister gifted me the Nano, my name embossed in the silver metallic back. It bothered me intensely to cover up that impressive piece of tech and design in a mauve-coloured skin, which would protect it when dropped and came with a clasp that could be clipped geekily to a trouser belt.
Apple or Steve Jobs had introduced the iPod in October 2001, a revelation that could hold about a thousand songs which you could categorise by genre and play in random order or shuffle, without needing anything else besides a headphone and a charger. Since its launch, Apple has sold about 450 million iPods, but the numbers have fallen because of the iPhone, according to newspaper reports. To put it in context, last year Apple sold 3 million iPods compared with 250 million iPhones, the New York Times reported. When Apple announced on Tuesday (May 10, 2022) that it was ending a two-decade run with this product, it was a reminder of how something so revolutionary could die out in a mere 20 years. Yet there's no denying that streaming services have made the technology redundant.
Over the years, there have been many versions of the iPod—Mini (in 2004), Shuffle and Nano (since 2005), Touch and Classic (since 2007)—but they have been gradually phased out by the company, leading up to this moment of complete cancellation. The company stopped making the Classic, with the click wheel, in 2014, while the Nano and Shuffle were stopped three years later. The touchscreen model that was launched in 2007 will remain on sale till supply runs out, the company said.
The iPod was the precursor to the iPhone, which is a far more sophisticated gadget that pays bills, receives OTPs, reminds you when to walk and plays music. But it’s the iPod that’s said to have transformed the then nearly-bankrupt company to becoming one of the most valued firms in the world, a $3 trillion giant that’s the benchmark for style.
My 2GB version of the iPod Nano, which I got within days of the product being made available in stores, was just about three-and-a-half inches in length, weighed under 45 grams and would run for more than 12 hours on a single charge. You ran your finger over the control wheel to select music, marvelled at the scroll, the clarity of music and the magic of ease. It became a statement, the university campus sprinkled with hundreds of students attached to the distinctive white headphone cable and I was one of them.
It kept me company on long walks to the train station and longer walks home, through the most miserable of sub-zero Boston winters and worse still, loneliness. It served me my dated, retro and un-evolving tastes in music, U2, Chris Rea and Bruce Springsteen co-existing seamlessly with Hindi movie hits of the time, Murder, Bunty Aur Babli and Rabbi Shergill. I introduced my then two-year-old nephew to music on the Nano and would watch his head bob while listening to Kunal Ganjawala, not understanding a word of Hindi, but just swaying to the sound.
An hour or so in the weekend would be dedicated to searching for music or downloading from existing CDs, or sometimes, just to help procrastinate from doing course work. The iPod would take music from Apple’s digital jukebox iTunes—itself born as a counter to the service Napster, which allowed for songs to be shared for free—and sold songs for 99 cents. The Nano was expensive, egalitarian, democratic, shared by many and just sometimes controversial when the headphone was split between two listeners arguing about what to play from one Nano at one time.
Roughly a year after getting the iPod, by which time I was back in India, it stopped working, just like that. Online help forums did not have the solution. A fortuitous trip to London came in handy, with the big Apple store at Regent Street that attracts thousands of tourists—mostly for the free WiFi—as a last resort to my struggling music player. They changed it immediately, hardly any questions asked, except that the new piece I got did not have my name embossed. While I got in and out of the store in minutes and in relief, I somehow felt a little better watching Sunny Deol, in an age-inappropriate sleeveless checked shirt, running around with an Apple box in his hand.
That Nano is the only iPod I ever had. It’s still around, not used for a while since its powers started deteriorating. I should dispatch it with the next lot of e-waste, but I hang on to it in some strange sense of misplaced hope, particularly after I saw this model as an exhibit in the National Museum of American History in Washington a decade ago.
But I hang on to it also because of inertia, an inability to detach from a much-loved machine that came at the right time in the right place. I hold on to it partly because the Nano changed my relationship with music, significantly increasing its usage and impact in my life, before swinging the other way. Once the Nano started flagging—the battery would die after a few songs, it would not recharge at other times and, of course, would not sync with current operating system versions—I stopped listening to music as frequently. Streaming services, reliant on network coverage, somehow didn’t cut it as smoothly while my taste in music, which never developed beyond a point, started feeling more and more ancient.Perhaps the extinction of the iPod is a personal sign, to evolve, to adapt, to be more experimental and go beyond just rip, mix, burn.