If ever a corporate promise was an undersell, it was this one:
“Apple Computer introduced a portable music player today and declared that the new gadget, called the iPod, was so much easier to use that it would broaden a nascent market in the way the Macintosh once helped make the personal computer accessible to a more general audience.”
I remember seeing my first iPod at the University of Washington bookstore.
I stared blankly for a moment: that interface looked foreign, not familiar. Whereas the Walkman adopted the interface of the stereo tape player, the iPod riffed on the amplifier volume knob. Kinda sorta.
Apple’s tech writers had created a simple (and elegant) ‘how to’ card. Play with it once, and you didn’t need to see that card again. “Brilliant,” as Don Norman wrote when analyzing the music player along three dimensions: beauty, usability and pride of ownership.
The iPod marked the beginning of the end for the Sony Walkman (1979) which had miniaturized the stereo tape player. The Walkman made it possible to take your mix-tape on a walk, jog or bike ride. The Discman (1984) brought portability to CDs, but you could listen to only one album at a time.
You could buy or make a tape. You could buy a CD. But if you wanted a digital music player, you needed a computer to move music onto that device. Only 56% of U.S. households had a computer in 2001; overwhelmingly, they ran on Windows.
The music lover also needed access to music that had been converted to the digital .mp3 format. Either she needed a friend with digital music; an Internet connection for downloads; or decent computer skills to “rip” her own CDs (covert the music to an .mp3 file the device could play back).
In other words, listening to digital music was a kludgy process!
The iPod tagline was “1,000 songs in your pocket.”
If you had an Apple computer, that is.
Initially the iPod worked only with Apple computers, accounting for about 1-in-20 computers in the U.S. Jobs predicted the iPod would be such an attractive product that customers would buy an Apple computer to use it.
In 2001, digital music was already in the wild (via peer-to-peer services like BitTorrent (2001) and Napster (1999). In July 2001, a federal judge had shut down Napster on copyright infringement grounds (aka piracy).
In 2003, Apple tackled the piracy problem with the iTunes Store. Jobs convinced media giants like BMG, EMI, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal and Warner to sell their music song-by-song. This was one more example of how the Internet disaggregated information. (It happened to news organizations as well.) Apple released software for Windows in 2003 as well.
In 2005, “Apple sold 32 million iPods, or one every second.”
On 24 October 2001, the New York Times had noted that market research firm IDC expected the entire 2005 market for digital music players to be about 18 million units.
Then in 2007: enter the iPhone.
In early 2022, Apple discontinued production of the iPod.
The iPod began with a modest goal: Let’s create a music product that makes people want to buy more Macintosh computers. Within a few years, it would change consumer electronics and the music industry and lead to Apple becoming the most valuable company in the world.
When Apple announced the iPod, the company’s stock was trading at about $19. What if you had invested $1,000 then, and left the stock alone?
On 11 September 2022, Apple shares were trading at about $157. Given stock splits over those 21 years, those shares would have increased in value to about $450,000.
Although analysts were somewhat cool in 2001, retrospectives celebrated the iconic iPod.
- 2009, Globe and Mail: “How the iPod changed everything“
- 2011, MacWorld: “How the iPod changed the world of music“
- 2021, The Conversation: “Apple’s iPod came out two decades ago and changed how we listen to music.”
- 2021, People: “The iPod Turns 20! See Every Iteration Through the Years“
- 2022, First Post: “How the iPod changed how we consume music and content“