The two best electronic devices I have purchased in recent memory both play music. One is called a Mighty, which is like an iPod Shuffle for the streaming age targeted towards exercising. It is a small, square brick with no screen that plays music from Spotify or Amazon Music. The other is an honest-to-God bedside radio with a dial whose only modern nod is an aux jack that turns it into a speaker.
When Apple announced it is no longer making the iPod this week, it did not in fact signal the death of the iPod. The iPod died in 2017 when Apple discontinued the Nano and Shuffle (the iPod Classic, the one with the click wheel that only played music and is the device that immediately comes to mind when someone says “iPod”, was killed off in 2014, but the Nano was still an app-free music player with a click wheel). For the last five years, Apple has continued the iPod brand by selling old iPhone models without a SIM card tray. This device had its utilities, particularly for security-conscious paranoiacs like my colleague Joseph Cox, but it was not in any meaningful sense an iPod, a device solely focused on storing and playing music.
In the time since Apple killed the true iPod, I have found myself seeking out more and more devices like it. Not music-playing devices specifically, but electronics intended to do one job and to do it well. Because the beauty of devices focused on one thing is I can put them away when I’m not using them.
But there aren’t many devices like that anymore. Most electronics try to be many things to the humans that use them, commanding our attention even when we don’t want them to. The iPod’s successor, the iPhone, is of course the paramount example here. Smartphones are tools, work devices, and entertainment centers rolled into one. If we need something, anything, we reach for our phones, either to do the thing we need or to look up how to do it.
But this is about more than smartphones. Speakers come with voice assistants. Ovens have apps. Refrigerators have screens. Cars send alerts to our phones. Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and other health devices passively track us all the time with the promise of alerting us if there’s something it thinks we ought to know. They may be somewhat useful in some contexts but it’s just more shit that can break or more of life interrupted.
Before the Mighty came out in 2017, I exercised with my smartphone strapped to my arm in one of those armbands that made me look like a character from a bad science fiction movie. I could hardly use the touch screen because the case had to be waterproof with a plastic guard. Then the Mighty came along and filled that need. It is not a perfect product. The software was buggy at first, the battery life was about three hours with the first edition, although newer models last longer. It doesn’t work with other streaming services like Tidal or Apple Music. But it’s hyper-focused on doing one specific job that no other product does, and it does it well. The best part is when I’m done exercising I throw it in my bag where it stays until the next time I exercise.
There was a time—and perhaps, to some people, it is still now—when companies dreamed of making the perfect device, something we would use for pretty much everything all the time. You can still see infomercials about products like this on late night TV that promise to be able to cook any time of food in any type of heating method for just four low payments of $39.95 plus shipping and handling. These products are also notorious for being bad at every job they attempt, as brilliantly recounted in Wendy Woloson’s delightful book Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America. Smartphones and do-it-all electronics aren’t the same type of crap, but they pollute our lives in a similar way, promising to make our lives easier and better but only delivering a more complex, bothersome, and frustrating existence.
I want more devices like the iPod Classic in my life, ones that are the right tool for the specific job, and fewer devices that are meant to be always around or on me. Smartwatches and the like might work for some people. But I still remember the excitement with which I would take out my iPod, swirl around the wheel as that clicking sound ratcheted in my earbuds, and find the perfect track for that moment in the day. Now, I look at the products Apple makes and I only see things I can’t wait to turn off so I can focus on the things in life I actually enjoy.