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After over a decade of using iPhones and six years of Apple Music, it may be hard for many to imagine that there was once a time when you had to transfer your music to your portable audio player using a physical cable, but now an enterprising “creative technologist” has decided to give us an idea of what the early iPod era could have looked like in a world of streaming music services.
Seventeen years ago, Apple released its fourth-generation iPod, the first model to feature a click wheel control surface and completely embrace the Windows platform with full USB support. It had a small 2.5-inch monochrome screen with basic scrolling text menus, maxed out at a whopping 40GB of storage, and had absolutely no wireless connectivity — not even Bluetooth.
Instead, to use this classic iPod model, you had to plug it into your PC or Mac and transfer all of your music onto its internal hard drive using iTunes (or one of the handful of third-party apps designed expressly to transfer music onto an iPod). Listening to your music required a set of wired headphones that plugged into the top of the iPod, and you navigated tracks by scrolling through menus using the rather iconic click wheel.
While the device seems quaint by today’s standards, it pretty much defined exactly what a media player should be, with a user interface that was so intuitive that just about anybody could pick one up and start listening to music within a few seconds — as long as that music had already been loaded onto the iPod, of course.
So, when YouTuber and software developer Guy Dupont got his hands on an old 2004 iPod handed down from his mother-in-law, he decided to take the classic design and give it a big update for the modern era by turning it into a streaming media player that could be used with Spotify.
Dupont re-engineered the entire iPod, leaving only the case, click wheel, hold switch, and headphone jack behind, while ripping out all the other internals, including the display. When the dust settled, however, the resulting device still looks like a traditional iPod in almost every way, right down to the click wheel navigation system.
Specifically, Dupont used a Raspberry Pi as the brains of the new system, adding both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity in the process, while replacing the 30-pin Dock Connector with a standard micro USB jack for charging. He also added a bigger battery, but notes that since the new device draws a lot more power it’s basically a wash.
The monochrome display was replaced with a full colour screen that Dupont says actually ended up being the most expensive single component, costing him $40, as it was the only one he could find in a size that fit the 2.5-inch display window of the iPod case. He also added that he would have preferred to use the existing monochrome display if he could have managed it, but acknowledges that the black-and-green Spotify colours turned out pretty cool.
While the display was already compatible with the Raspberry Pi, one of the most challenging parts of the project was trying to interface the click wheel with the rest of the system. For this, Dupont relied on a decade-old Hackaday article from which he was able to figure out what each of the wires coming from the click wheel was supposed to do.
Finding that blog post honestly felt like a miracle. This project would not have been remotely as interesting if I couldn’t have gotten the original click wheel to work, and there is nothing out there about these old iPods.Guy Dupont
Although Dupont left the original headphone jack in place, he didn’t actually wire it up to anything. Instead, music plays via Bluetooth — a wireless technology that was in its very nascent stages when this iPod was first released. On the other hand, the classic hold switch, normally used to disable the click wheel to prevent accidental inputs, was remapped to a power switch instead to provide a way to turn the device off.
What’s particularly cool is that Dupont decided to get even more creative and add in haptic feedback to the user experience. While the original click-wheel iPods all provided an audible clicking sound when moving your finger around the wheel, Dupont added a haptic motor inside the case that would vibrate while physically scrolling.
All in all, the hardware components required to make this whole thing work worked out to less than $100, but the real effort was in putting the software together that would be used to make the magic happen.
Dupont notes that he set out to preserve “as much of the original Apple magic as possible,” so that using the device would feel just like an original iPod. To that end, he preserved the same traditional menu system, with only a few new additions for things like Spotify’s dynamic “New Releases” playlist.
Further, since of course the device could now be used to access the tens of millions of songs available on Spotify, it was necessary to add in a search screen — a capability that Apple didn’t add to the traditional iPods until two years later with the “5.5G” iPod with Video.
Dupont coded most of the higher-level software components himself, using the stripped-down Raspberry Pi OS Lite as the base operating system and Openbox to provide the user interface visuals. To stream music from Spotify, he relied on an existing app, Raspotify, which is designed to interface with Spotify’s service as a “Spotify Connect” device.
The two custom components developed by Dupont included a “Clickwheel Reader” app to interface with the iPod click-wheel and the software app that drives the entire front-end user interface, including presenting menus, displaying search results, and initiating the actual audio playback.
What’s really interesting here is that the audio playback is completely decoupled from the controls. So, when I hit a button in my application, I send a command to Spotify’s servers which then calls back to the Raspotify Spotify instance running on my Raspberry Pi. It may seem roundabout but that’s actually how kinda how Spotify works under the hood.Guy Dupont
While it obviously would have been cooler if Dupont had been able to make this work with Apple Music, the reality is that the tightly controlled Apple ecosystem offered him no way of interfacing with the service. In fact, Dupont added that he “feels a little bit weird about making what is essentially a 15-minute advertisement for Spotify,” but that they’re the only streaming platform that offers a software development kit (SDK) of any kind, but also made it clear that as much as he likes Spotify, “it is no secret that Spotify does not compensate artists well.”