How the iPod changed mobile technology


Apple says it will stop making its iconic iPod this year, after more than two decades. When it was first released, the iPod was a stylish alternative to bulky CD or cassette players. And the “touch circle” function under the two-tone screen was like a revolution.

Over the years, the iPod has gotten even smaller: no screen, just a clip and a few buttons on the cute little iPod Shuffle. By the time the last iPod Touch model was released three years ago, the iPod was more like the other innovation it inspired, the iPhone.

It got us thinking about how the device has changed mobile technology. Host Kimberly Adams spoke with Patrick McCray, who teaches history of technology and science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He said it was the size of the iPod that was revolutionary. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Patrick McCray (Photo courtesy of UCSB)

Patrick McRay: Hard drives were super small, so they were less than 2 inches. And the first generation iPod had a storage capacity that seemed huge at the time, 5 gigabytes. But the small size and small dimensions of it meant that the product itself could be very small, and of course, fit very well in your purse or pocket.

Kimberly Adams: What made these hard drives so small, so revolutionary?

McCray: So if you go back to 1988, there were two physicists working independently, one in France and one in Germany. And they almost simultaneously discovered something called giant magnetoresistance, the discovery that tiny changes in magnetism can produce surprisingly strong electrical signals. It was a fundamental physical discovery that allowed companies like IBM to make ultra-sensitive hard drives that could be both smaller but also more compact and hold more data. And then that turned out to be the key technology that later helped make the iPod possible when it was introduced by Apple in 2001.

Adam: Last week, Apple announced that it was going to discontinue the iPod. So, given that you are a historian of technology, what does that mean to you?

McCray: Well, technology has taken its course. And the iPod had a great run. I mean, it’s been for sale for over two decades. I remember having one of the very first ones when they came out, which at the time seemed absolutely amazing and revolutionary. And this week, when I heard they were going to be discontinued, I went out and bought one of the new iPod Touch. And, again, it’s really remarkable how technology has changed. They no longer have the hard drives in them the way I was describing. But now all the memory capacity, of course, is solid state, like flash drive technology, like you have on your iPhone. And the one I just bought has 256 gigabytes of memory, compared to the original 5 gigs they came with. So that’s a pretty impressive change over two decades.

Adam: Yeah, talk more about what that meant in tech history. Where is the iPod?

McCray: It kind of represents the increased ability to carry more music and more podcasts. Once you could carry all that creativity in your pocket, it probably helped drive some of the business with podcasts and things like that.

Adam: At the time when the iPod first came out, this technology that allowed so much information to be stored in such a small package was quite a big breakthrough. How do you think our lives might be different today without it?

McCray: I think the beauty of the iPod was that it took a really amazing commercial product design that also had incredible technological capabilities with ultra-small hard drives, [and] Apple has also connected it to the iTunes Music Store. Then you have an ecosystem that makes it easy for people to buy music, download it, and walk around with it.

Adam: What are you going to do with your new iPod?

McCray: I will use it to travel. I mean, I’m kinda excited to have it as a sort of music-only thing that I can have on airplanes and just throw my iPhone in the bag and not care about it and then just have this little thing that has my music and podcasts on it. And luckily he’s not logged into messages and emails and stuff like that. And I can just sit back and listen to “Marketplace.”

Related Audio: More From Our Listeners

One of our listeners, Crystal Ligori, sent us her story on iPod:

A photo of an iPod Shuffle next to a stack of postage stamps.
Crystal Ligori’s iPod Shuffle (Photo courtesy of Ligori)

“In 2008, I had just received an iPod Shuffle. For those not in the know, it’s slightly larger than a postage stamp and had very simple controls to play, pause or skip a song. What it didn’t have was a display screen, so there was no way to tell the name of the song or the artist while you were listening.

“I had just gone out with someone and was about to go home for the holidays, complaining about a lack of music for the trip. My boyfriend at the time took the opportunity to make me a kind of mix tape, which I listened to over and over during my week away. For months. I never knew the names of the bands or the titles of the songs in the mix, but I wrote them down every time I heard songs in nature – artists like Ray LaMontagne, Minus the Bear, Frightened Rabbit.

“And slipped into the playlist was an original – well, kinda original – it was a cover he did of Mr. Big’s ‘To Be With You’, all sung with cat meows I knew then it was my person Thirteen years later, this iPod still sits in my husband and I’s home in Portland, Oregon, forgotten technology and the beginning of a story. of love.

Thank you to everyone who sent in iPod memorabilia.


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