Wednesday, February 3, 2010

iPods in 1979?

It's true! In 1979, Kane Kramer filed a patent for a device that looks and acts a lot like an iPod. Gizmodo explains it better than I could:
Kramer's device, the IXI, was flash-based, even though flash memory in 1979 only could have held about three minutes of audio, and featured a screen, four-way controls, and was about the size of a cigarette pack. Even weirder, he envisioned the creation and sale of digital music and foresaw all the good and bad that would come from this: No overhead, no inventory, but a great push for independent artists, with the risk of piracy looming large.
(If you click the Gizmodo link, you'll see pictures!)

Unfortunately the patent wasn't renewed in 1988, so Mr. Kramer is not currently a multi-millionaire.

My first thought when I read the link above was that someone had gone back in time, invented the iPod, and then met an unfortunate end before they could make their millions.

My second thought was that a world where the iPod had been put on the market in 1979 or 1980 would probably be radically different technologically. I'm not entirely sure how (not a computer scientist, social scientist, or futurist), but it would have to be.

Just think:

  • 1979 - the IXI patent is noticed by a young entrepreneur with a talent for computers
  • 1980 - development begins
  • 1982 - the IXI is on the market*; flash memory has advanced greatly over the last two years, meaning that computers can do away with floppy disks; the device can also hold 20 minutes of music, after a major push by Kramer, the entrepreneur, and their computer specialists (seriously, it'll sell better this way)
  • 1983 - Music Retail Stations are ubiquitous; the Sony Walkman, barely five years old, still sells, but has seen its sales drop alarmingly; various music industry people are shouting about the Death Of The Cassette Tape**
  • 1988 - the IXI 3 holds 60 minutes of music; it has been paired with the analog cell phone to become the Hot Thing for yuppies***; the IXI Press is released at the same time as the IXI Phone; cassettes are still not dead, but their death is "imminent" according to pundits; by now, Apple and IBM have begun capitalizing on IXI Corp's technological advances
  •  1991 - the IXI Tablet is released, able to hold music and programs, and interface with the World Wide Web, which is just starting to become popular; it is hailed as the Death of Computers, a statement which is mocked by anyone who remembers the theoretical Death of Cassettes
If we had a working, popular, tablet computer in '91, where would we be in 2010? Probably a lot closer to the futures Hollywood promised us****. Maybe past that, in some ways. Possibly very different culturally.

Another thing to consider: what if the IXI got off the ground only to fail next to the Walkman? Would the failure have had an impact on the path portable music players took after that? "Let's not be like the IXI" and all that? Or would things have evened out and progressed as we remember them?

Final considerations for the day: What if Kramer was a time traveller? Is it too soon for historical fiction of any kind to be set in the 1980s?

* Yes, I'm being optimistic.
** the CD got its start this year, in our reality
*** Going by when the iPhone came out relative to the iPod

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