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Our Digital Future Didn't Begin with iPhone or iPad: Steve Jobs Started It a Decade Ago, With This

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It was easy to laugh at the devoted lining up to get their new iPhones yesterday.

I remember laughing at the people who had iPods — the people who, single-handedly but by the millions, by the thousands of songs, were fracturing the record, were destroying the preciousness of the record-listening experience by bringing music everywhere they went. Not only were they ruining music, they were turning into oblivious citizens, trapped in their own pods on the subway, on the street, jogging, at their desks.

Those jerks, with their one thousand songs in their pocket, with their skip-less listening experience, their sleek, weird-looking devices, lording it over us Discman and Walkman users with their silly white headphones. Did they really have to go and change the color too?

That seems all terribly naive now, of course. The many concerns about Apple’s influence on our digital lives are only in proportion to the genius of Steve Jobs, the vision of a CEO who invented and then re-birthed a company by revolutionizing our idea of what a computer could be. The revolution may have started in 1984, with the advent of the Macintosh, which convinced millions that computers could be easy-to-use and accessible to the masses — that 1984 won’t be like 1984.

But it was until another cultural touchstone year that Steve Jobs kicked that revolution into dizzyingly high gear. 1984 was a milestone for Apple, but our present relationship with technology (among other things) started, eerily and appropriately enough, in 2001. The future didn’t look like a computer; it looked like a monolith.

It might have been a phone – or a tablet

In 2001, Apple sent out a paper invitation to reporters with the following text: "This coming Tuesday, Apple invites you to the unveiling of a breakthrough digital device. (Hint: it's not a Mac)."

Speculation swirled. But ZDNet poo-pooed the idea it would be an MP3 player. Instead, they had some prescient hopes:

I would like to see an "iPhone", a Smartphone with the Apple typical user interface, something like Microsoft’s Stinger – but this time from Apple. But I don’t believe that we will see something like this. Maybe it’s the revenge of the Newton, the father of all PDAs."

Of course, Apple would get there eventually, and no doubt Steve Jobs already had similar visions. But phones would have been too expensive, bulky, and required seamless cooperation with a service provider (it’s no surprise Apple’s relationship with AT&T is so difficult). Ditto for a new PDA, and the failure of the Newton was still fresh in mind.

Music seemed just as unlikely. But as Jobs explains at the start of his speech, it’s also the most obvious way into the hearts and minds of the world.

iPod. Not “the iPod”

In the understated keynote address he gave on October 23rd, Steve Jobs (looking heavier than we remember him) introduced iPod. Not the iPod mind you. Jobs had the gall – the genius – to get rid of the “the” completely. Even if we haven’t followed suit yet (I haven’t heard anyone refer to their iPhone as simply “iPhone”), Jobs wants to get us closer to our computer, and we can’t do that if we keep calling it “the computer.” It has to have a proper name, like Steve, Sally. Or HAL.

This was simply “iPod.”

iPod wasn’t the first portable MP3 player. But the others were bulky, slow, and ugly. What Jobs was offering was tantamount to magic.

(Watch the iPod keynote speech and the first iPod commercial at Motherboard.tv.)

The Specs

  • With an ultra-thin hard drive (5GB, 1.8 in diameter, 0.2 inches thick), it “fits in your pocket.” That was never before possible. “The iBook is really portable. This is ultra-portable.”
  • 1,000 songs
  • 20 minute skip protection.
  • Firewire connection (“we invented” that, says Jobs), which meant it took 10 minutes to put a CD on your player, not five hours. “It’s 30 times faster than any other mp3 player.”
  • Extraordinary battery. A “remarkable” new technology.
  • A revolutionary charger, in a design that’s been used on every Apple device since then. As Jobs says, “Huge win.”

But what’s the big deal? Jobs asks at the end, falsely modest. He returns to ultra-portablity. To demonstrate its size, he uses a magician’s trick, and even a familiar prop: the playing card case. It’s all part of Jobs’ brilliant slight of hand. He draws out the flourish, the reveal, with that showmanship – part visionary, part huckster – now familiar, and loved, by the Apple faithful. He shows the sleek silver side, the shining back. And then the front.

It was white, and in the context of decades of beige, grey and ugly personal computers, it was a work of art.

In retrospect, it all seems obvious. And the iPod, like the iPhone and the iPad, are far from the perfection they promise. (My own break with Apple came after my iPod broke for the 3rd time, for no apparent reason, and with no apparent fix from the Genius Bar gurus, except “buy a new one.”)

But that only reconfirms the genius of Apple. It’s not about quality necessarily. It’s about magic. At the time, who would have thought that that a gadget could be magical? Or that listing to our entire music collections could be such a transformative experience? And who could have guessed Apple would destroy the music industry and revolutionize it too?

This was only 9 years ago. Laugh at those iPhone obsessives, sure. But also wonder what we’ll be laughing at in another 9 years, and who’ll be laughing last.

This article was originally published on Motherboard.tv. Watch Steve Jobs iPod keynote speech and the first iPod commercial here.

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