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The original iPod was a triumph of functional design. No single attribute was a pure breakthrough, but the way the elements all worked together, seamlessly, made the product a hit despite its aggressive price. It helped to reinvent the way we listen to music, and it paved the way for the iPhone. This was a design success that went way beyond aesthetics.
But the aesthetics mattered. The iPod looked and felt terrific. And it featured one detail that deserves a special place in the annals of pure form with absolutely no impact on how a thing works: white earbuds, which connected to the device through a white cord.
If that sounds a bit ho-hum today, take it from the Apple designer Jony Ive himself, who, back in 2003, brought it up in an interview about the iPod’s still recent success: “I remember there was a discussion: ‘Headphones can’t be white; headphones are black, or dark gray.’ ” But the aesthetic commitment to an all-white object, including the cords to the ears, prevailed, and ended up being one of the product’s signature attributes—the focal point of Apple’s inescapable silhouette-figure advertisements, and a signifier that those who wore it on streets and in subways (not to mention music videos and paparazzi shots) were citizens of a digitally hip future. In retrospect, it was one of those design decisions that reveals how crucial, even defining, a single detail can be.
That aesthetic wallop is long gone. As the iPod proliferated, white headphones started to feel flashy or trendy—more of a handlebar mustache or a trucker hat than a mark of distinction. When the iPhone era arrived, they became so commonplace that they were essentially bourgeois, and conspicuous listeners moved on to Beats headphones, various Bluetooth alternatives, or other, fresher status broadcasters. White earbuds settled into the role of an acceptable and familiar classic—the Levi’s of headphones.
This design detail deserves a moment of recognition today, as Apple itself leaves behind its own iconic white earbuds—or, indeed, headphones that involve cords of any color. The new iPhone 7, as was widely predicted, won’t have a standard headphone jack. As a sop to people who insist on physical wires, the company will provide (white) earbuds with a Lightning connector—meaning they plug into the same slot used for recharging—and an adapter for users of traditional headphones. But the real innovation, according to Apple, involves no cords at all. Citizens of the future are advised to plug a set of wireless AirPods (available, starting in October, for a hundred and fifty-nine dollars) into their ears.
For months, the rumor that Apple would eliminate the headphone jack has been criticized as a combination of planned obsolescence and raw hubris. It is nevertheless consistent with the company’s ethos—people don’t know what they want until we show them—and behavior—the company that was synonymous with the point-and-click interface did not hesitate to deliver us into the world of swipe-and-tap. Apple has a track record of eliminating or revising elements of its hardware, from dropping the optical disk drive on laptops to changing the docking port on its phones. The stated goal is always simplicity, paired with a somewhat comical quest for thinness.
It is also consistent with a world view that Ive embodies but that is widespread among contemporary designers: everything, and I mean everything, needs to be redesigned. Top to bottom, and right away. And when that’s done, and everybody’s comfortable with the results, that means it probably needs to be redesigned again. Often this is not a demand-side phenomenon; certainly nobody was complaining very noisily about headphone jacks. But maybe we don’t know what we don’t want until Apple shows us.
To a citizen of the present, AirPods might resemble hearing aids, and Twitter mockery about how easily these might be lost was immediate. But who knows? Perhaps they’ll catch on. It’s hard to imagine duplicating the visual potency of those white earbuds when they first appeared. But, either way, today’s announcement nudges that potency further into history, a visual marker of a specific time. You’ll know a movie is set in the aughts because someone walks through a scene with cords dangling from his ears, and eventually they will look as archaic as bowler hats or bell-bottoms. Function marches onward, and so does form, reducing yesterday’s status symbol to kitsch.