Once upon a time there was this thing called High Fidelity, and it wasn't just about sound quality. It also involved a certain level of expectation consumers placed on consumer products, standard features, lines that engineers dare not cross. Throughout the era of magnetic tape -- from giant reel-to-reels and cart machines used by broadcasters to the successful and long-lived boom box cassette, no one would have dared to introduce a product that could not record.
There were just too many reasons in those days why people would want to record their own sound. From children recording the family opening presents on Christmas morning ("open this first!") to playing 'radio announcer', making simple start-stop 'mix' tapes from favorite radio stations, recording lectures, meetings or conferences, even phone calls (remember the suction cup induction coil?), it was a staple of childhood and adulthood that at several key stages in life, for whatever reason, we would rely on these devices to capture and play back voices, acoustic music for entertainment or transcription. The AGC circuit and built-in electret condenser microphone were perfected through the the 70s and were standard on every portable tape system. As quality improved the only real feature tier was whether the device could record in stereo, and whether it could accept line inputs. But mono/AGC recording was a standard feature.
Then around 1980, things began to improve --- but also take a turn for the worse. The Walkman series was marketed aggressively with the promise of improved fidelity and portability, and in that initial design, a gambit:how would the consumer react to a playback-only device? A small measure of additional engineering, some re-tooling at modest cost, could have placed a 'record' button on the Walkman too. There was risk. But they had decided to play a new game, and undoubtedly some argued that the demand record capability, where it existed, would result in the purchase of an additional full-featured recorder. The gambit paid off. The playback Walkman became very popular, even to the point of becoming a high demand fashion accessory among the youth. I loved audio and gadgets but was never tempted to get a Walkman, its lack of record capability made it a damaged product and seeing it become popular made me uneasy in ways I can only describe now.
And so it was that for a great many households on countless Christmas mornings, a brain-damaged by design Walkman was unwrapped and in place of that second present --- the 10-pack of blank cassettes ("Open this one next!")... there was a half dozen pre-recorded music cassettes selected by the parents (at $10 a pop) that weren't quite what the kids wanted to hear, but never mind, they'll soon be spending their own money for more. Walkmans were expensive. No real cassette recorder under the tree this year. And so a record of the voices of the family on Christmas morning became a thing of the past, and as has happened many times in this era of "progress", something that was possible in the past was no longer in the present.
By slow and painful degrees, as popular read-only portable sound devices and the pre-recorded music to play on them sapped peoples' money, recording became the provenance of non-portable cassette decks owned by those serious money to spend. And along the way, collateral damage was done as the average person 'lost' the ability to, on impulse, record voices or music or the spaces around them. Wouldn't it be bizarre if you could point to a period in history where people, modern literate people, stopped carrying around pen and paper, stopped writing things down as they had before? In which a certain cultural forgetfulness arose? That is how I feel about the practical 'loss' of our ability to record cassettes.
And so it was some twenty years later when Apple hit the second and third round of iPod design. Apple had none of the excuses, and was taking none of the risks that Sony had taken by capping off the recordable tape era with the Walkman. They were marketing to kids of kids who in the 80s had never really known what it meant to be able to talk to yourself (via playback), record one's surroundings, gatherings of friends. If there was the tiniest bit of will there would have been a way: circuits all on a chip, microphones tiny, microprocessor more than capable for continuous mp3 streaming. Digital Recorders did exist in this 'enlightened' era --- as expensive 'niche' devices marketed specifically for dictation and transcription by students and professionals. Priced beyond kids.
The iPod was priced beyond kids' reach too, just as the Walkman had been years before. But there is no limit to the power of persuasion and doting parents, so any 'sell' was possible once it, like the Walkman, had become a fashion accessory. The first iPod was indeed a miracle of miniaturization and performance. But by the second generation recording was possible --- *if* you purchased an additional accessory and intended to navigate the feature to record 'voice memos'. What followed, by my quick read, were years of 3rd party products and clip on accessories, and the device's refusal to stream directly to mp3 at any bitrate despite upgrades in processor capability. In short, record capability as a sloppily executed engineering afterthought with menu-navigating monkey work. For sound capture your cheapest cassette recorder from the 70s and 80s with it's one touch record that captures a room full of voices with AGC... beats the usability crap out of iPod nano.
Smartphones have once again placed one-touch sound recording into the hands of every day people, but again, at a dear price. Many manufacturers cannot get it through their thick heads that people might want to record sound and not video. And while the CCD/lens technology steadily improves and the condenser microphones used today are best-of-breed, the microphone is typically placed behind a pinhole without an even microscopic piece of rubber that might have reduced finger-on-device noise, with a directional characteristic that makes it useless for general recording. Yes I know, bluetooth to the rescue! But when I consider what might have been the features that consumers demand by default, and not this gambit play of "what can we shave off next"... I wonder whether the future will bring us to 'peak HD' and then, with some future 'Walkman' decision, not an increase in feature or fidelity, but a steady decline (for less cost and increased margin) until kids are using bleeding-edge technology --- that delivers the same sound and visual experience as Edison's gramophone and kinetoscope --- while thinking it's new and cool. Not even realizing that their grandparents had better.