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Starting in 2004, Apple ran the “Silhouette” ad campaign for its iPod product line. The television, print, and outdoor ads featured black silhouetted forms dancing against bright, colorful backgrounds. Against the green and blue and purple and blacks, two white objects stood proud: white iPods in the hands, and the white cords that connected them to the ears.
The campaign began years before the iPhone, when Apple’s portable product was a bulky, wheel-controlled device with a single purpose: to play music. First released two months after 9/11 with a spinning, magnetic hard drive that whirred audibly, the device was instrumental in turning Apple’s fortunes around. By 2004, the iTunes Music Store had launched, along with slimmer, cheaper, and more capacious iPods that worked with Windows in addition to Mac. The iPod era had arrived.
There are ways of measuring the impact of that era. Digital music as a prelude to digital movies, television, news, and everything, for one. An oblivious transition among personal electronics devices, from specialized to general use, for another. The rise of Apple itself, even, from has-been to the world’s most valuable company. All those characterizations and more certainly apply.
But the iPod had another, less obvious impact, too. During this period, from the iPod in 2001 through the iPhone X today, the white, Apple earbuds have achieved universal adoption. Every iPod and iPhone comes with a pair of the wired ones, and the signature white color was unusual enough that it became a signature. That’s why the “Silhouette” campaign worked: Apple products conferred a signature style, good down to the last detail—even the earbuds.
White earbuds weren’t an entirely new design, but they became iconic. The sound quality wasn’t great, but they were cheap and conferred status. They spawned cheap knockoffs. They inspired lamentations among those whose ears didn’t hold them well, since opting to use different listening devices would forego the fashion benefits of donning them. They were cool, and for that reason they became more or less universal.
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After acclimating to the AirPods, I began wondering if the role earbuds play in contemporary, technological life has been profoundly underestimated. The best way to understand a technology is sometimes to remove it and go without; only then does its function become palpable. You notice this when your car breaks down and you have to take transit to work, or when you leave your phone at home and can’t check in with work or family, or when a service outage takes out the internet, and Netflix along with it.
Yes, I know, the AirPods are just a new kind of wireless Bluetooth headset, and those are nothing new. But that gadget has always been a mixed bag. Whether or not the characterization was ever fair, the Bluetooth headset was the accoutrement of smarmy business men talking loud on the phone in inappropriate places. The black truncheon attached to their ears became hitched to its associated discourtesy. Meanwhile, Bluetooth audio headphones remained a luxury item, one mostly used by international travelers and audiophiles.