How the iPod changed mobile technology

Apple says it will stop production of its iconic iPod this year, after more than two decades in operation. When it was first introduced, the iPod was a neat alternative to bulky CD or cassette players. And the ‘circle touch’ feature at the bottom of the two-tone screen felt like a revolution.

Over the years, the iPod has gotten smaller: no screen, just a clip and a few buttons on the cute little iPod Shuffle. By the time the last iPod Touch came out three years ago, the iPod looked a lot like the other innovation that inspired it, the iPhone.

It got us thinking about how the device could change mobile technology. Host Kimberly Adams spoke with Patrick McCray, who teaches in the history of technology and science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He said it was the iPod’s size that pioneered. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Patrick McCray (Image courtesy of University of California, San Francisco)

Patrick McCray: The hard drives were very small, so they were less than 2 inches in size. And the first generation iPod had what at the time seemed huge, which was 5 GB. But its small size and small dimensions made it make the product itself very compact, and of course it slips in your purse or pocket very well.

Kimberly Adams: What allowed those hard drives to be so small, and that was so groundbreaking?

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

Adams: Last week, Apple announced that it would stop production of the iPod. Since you’re a technical historian, how do you feel about that?

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

Adams: Yes, talk more about what you mean in the history of technology. Where does the iPod sit?

McCray: It kind of represents the increased ability to carry more music and more podcasts. Once you can carry all that creativity in your pocket, maybe it helps motivate some activities with podcasts and things like that.

Adams: At the time, when the iPod first appeared, this technology with which you can store such a large amount of information in such a small package was a very big discovery. How do you think our lives would be different today without it?

McCray: I think the beauty of the iPod is that it took a really cool piece of commercial product design that also had some amazing technological capabilities with its ultra-compact hard drives, [and] Apple has also connected this to the iTunes Music Store. Then, you have an ecosystem that allows people to easily buy and download music and just wander around.

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

McCray: I will use it for travel. I mean, I’m kind of excited to get it as the kind of music only I can get on planes and just kind of throw my iPhone in the bag and not worry about it and then I get this little thing that my music and podcasts get on. Fortunately, he is not connected to messages, email, and things like that. And I can just sit back and listen to “Marketplace”.

Related audio: More of our listeners

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

Picture of the iPod Shuffle next to a pile of postage stamps.
iPod Shuffle by Crystal Liguori (Image courtesy Liguori)

“In 2008, I had just got an iPod Shuffle. For those unfamiliar, it’s a bit larger than a postage stamp and has very simple controls to play, pause, or skip a song. What it didn’t was was a display, so it wasn’t There is a way to find out the name of the song or artist while listening.

“I was dating a new guy about to come home for the holidays, complaining about the lack of music for the trip. My boyfriend at the time took the opportunity to make me a mixtape of sorts, which I listened to over and over in the week I was away. For months. I never knew the names of Bands or song titles are out of the mix, but I’d take note anytime I heard songs in the wild – artists like Ray LaMontagne, Minus the Bear, and Frightened Rabbit.

And crept into the playlist, it was an original—well, somewhat original—it was a cover he did for Mr. Big ‘To Be With You,’ and he sang it all with a cat’s meow. I knew at that point that this was my character. Thirteen years later, This iPod is still in my husband and I home in Portland, Oregon, a forgotten piece of technology and the beginning of a love story.”

Thanks to everyone who sent iPod memories.

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