I have seen the future, and it’s in a tiny little white box with little white wires sticking out of it.
Ah, yes — the increasingly ubiquitous iPod.
OK — mine is actually black, and it’s in a green aluminum case that manages to look almost as slick as the original design. But that’s beside the point — at least for the moment.
Back when I first got an iPod, it was really just another music player. Granted, it was small and it was sleek, and worshippers of all things Apple had an altar already prepared for its release.
But being an early adopter of all things gizmodic, gadgety and technological — and a music fanatic — I’d already had three MP3 players by then. There was the tiny flash-memory-based player that held about 50 songs. Then there was the cutting-edge player that stored my entire collection of music on a computer hard drive just like the one in my laptop computer.
The former was portable but left me always having to choose what I would carry with me. The latter was a little bigger than that 1980’s-era cassette player I think was my first portable music player. It required a strict hierarchy — and super-long file names — to keep my music in order. And I dreaded the notion that I might ever drop it, since hard drives don’t like to introduce concrete to introduce them to gravity.
The third player, acquired some two years later, was an updated model of the hard-drive player — smaller yet, but still plenty bigger than my hand and still resembling a small plastic brick. But it held my entire music collection. If I owned it, I had it at my fingertips. No matter my mood, I was prepared with a soundtrack. Long days at work were no match for my MP3 player.
Further, this model made it easy to replace the hard drive, should that ever fail, with a back access hatch that made that procedure as simple as replacing a battery on a remote control.
It had one of those too: smaller than a credit card, but four times as thick. Easy to lose, but you could really think about putting the device next to your stereo and forgoing CD’s for the rest of your life. I figured I was all set, with my forethought in getting that decide, and would never need to buy another music player.
Then the iPod arrived on the scene. The early adopter in me resisted, for a change. I had a great player. It was bigger than the iPod, not nearly as sleek, but it was otherwise great. I’d even made a hobby out of rewriting the badly translated manual for myself and other partisans of the device.
But the iPod had a siren’s song of its own — not the least in its ultra-portable form factor. And the player I’d thought would last me at least a decade lost its luster in the wake of the furor the little white device was causing around the world.
I must admit, the decision to finally get an iPod was made much easier by the fact that I got mine for free. Isn’t change always much easier when it’s handed to you on a silver platter with a $300 price tag just lopped off? But it was wonderful — all of a sudden, hundreds of albums’ worth of music was in the palm of my hand.
And that was just the beginning. Yes, indeed, it was.
With that first iPod — a just-minted fourth-generation model by the time I caved in to temptation — I was as moderate in my accessorizing as one could be. I had a case to keep it clean and protected and a power source to keep it going on the road. An old cassette adapter fed the sound to my car speakers.
Every bit of music I owned in digital format fit on that iPod, with just enough room to spare for maybe an album or two more.
Yes, indeed, I was already in a pickle.
My conundrum only deepened when I started to hear about plans to release an iPod that would also display videos — even television shows. And then there were these things called “podcasts” — ranging from the radio-style shows of amateur podcasters to slick, high-production-value videos from commercial magazines and Web sites.
All this content, just waiting to be accessed, things to be learned and discovered, if I could just find some room on my iPod. Well, truthfully, all it needed was a computer with the right software and a decent Internet connection. But the portability factor was tantalizing.
So, when Uncle Sam returned the interest-free loan I’d given him last year, I carefully socked away some in savings before caving in again. This time, it would be black as sleek as the overall iPod design, a rebellion from iconic iPod white. And this time, it would come with video.
By now, the accessory options were unlimited, as chaotic a world as the iPod was sleek. There were cases of every type, material and function. There were FM units to feed the music into my now cassette-less car. There were some little black portable speakers that match and a little black case in which the little white wires go. And then there’s the clear plastic protector that keeps the scratches away and the fancy polish that fixes the scratches it gets anyway.
There are high-end speaker systems with remote controls. There are handbags and backpacks that have pockets for the iPod, and speakers built in. There are car adapters that practically require an engineering degree to install and special mounting kits to keep your iPod from flying off the car dashboard and out the window.
There are fancy noise-reducing and light-up earphones, and Bluetooth wireless earphones, too. There are cables and adapters and docking systems for nearly every conceivable computer system and all the various sizes, capacities and models of iPod.
There are battery replacement kits when the inevitable happens — if you haven’t replaced your iPod with the latest model by then. There are services to replace the battery for you and there are external batteries so you can watch an entire season of “Lost.” There’s custom engraving for the shiny aluminum back. There’s custom modification to exchange the shiny aluminum for a brushed finish, with or without a personalized logo.
There are camera adapters for dedicated shutterbugs to use the iPod to view the photos on something bigger than the built-in screen on a digital camera. There are microphones to turn your iPod into a voice recorder and FM receivers to let you listen to the radio, too. There are programs to turn your iPod into a phrasebook for foreign languages or read passages of the Bible or Koran. There are services to load your vinyl LPs or cassettes or massive CD library onto your iPod for you.
And yes, there are fashions galore for the iPod style-conscious — even a baby “onesie” that makes your offspring look as sleek and easily controlled as an iPod while you try to ignore temper tantrums and a persistent crust of rice cereal. And, now, having found a design paradigm that the world seems to love, there’s even the iFan — a portable fan that looks, at first glance, just like an iPod, only literally cooler.
It begs the question of when — if ever — the culture will hit its saturation point with all things iPod. Will it go the way of the once-equally-ubiquitous Walkman? Will the planned obsolescence of each new model keep the fascination alive even as my sleek black fifth-generation model is abandoned in favor of a widescreen video model (rumored for this summer).
And the inevitable question: Can something still be ultra-cool when it’s so desirable that even your parents have one? Yes, Dad got his very own iPod for Christmas. I had to show him how to work it, but he, too, has a pair of ubiquitous white headphones now.
Perhaps oddly, that doesn’t lessen the cool factor for me. It’s still all my music — and podcasts and episodes of “Lost” — right in the palm of my hand.
And that’s the thing that really made it cool in the first place — that I could take my entertainment with me to while away a long drive, watch a TV show I can’t even see on my home television, listen to a podcast that introduces me to a new concept or hear a book while trapped in my recliner by the form of a sleeping 8-month-old.
Dad can take Chubby Checker for a walk. Mom can listen to something besides Rush Limbaugh. My godchildren can watch “Dora” instead of creating havoc in a restaurant. And Darin McCann can shut out the noise of the newsroom to concentrate on his digressions.
Yes, they could do these things with other devices — and some would argue they’d do it better. But have they? Generally, no. It took the form-factor and design ideals of the iPod to get many people to go portable with their music and other entertainment. And even if they listen to a podcast on their computer instead of the device that inspired the medium’s name, they reap the benefits of a device that has become an icon in world culture.
Now, if they can just squeeze in a built-in radio, microphone, full PDA functions, cell phone, scratch-free exterior, solar power, high-quality video and still cameras, and wireless headset, and give it enough storage space to last my entire life, it will be perfect — and sleek.