A Look Back At ‘The gadget of the century,’ Apple’s Digital Music Player, The iPod

FEATURE: 10.23.21 – It’s been two decades since a device that put 1,000 songs in our pockets would forever change the way we listened to music.

The iPod — which was announced by Apple on October 23, 2001 (see video of the product launch) — turns 20 years old today. It’s hard to believe that a once ubiquitous device has since faded away to become just a blip in our memories.

Apple iPods
Seen in this October 2007 photograph, from left to right, are three different models of iPods, an iPod classic, an iPod nano, and an iPod touch. (Photo: Joe Leo / PowerBook Central)

The iPod’s demise has been widely attributed to the iPhone supplanting the need for a separate device for playing your songs (whether purchased from the iTunes Store or ripped from CDs) and later on, the rise of subscription-based services like Apple Music. The iPod classic (what the original was rebranded as) was officially discontinued by Apple in 2014 with the iPod nano (the model that replaced the iPod mini in 2005) and the iPod shuffle following suit in 2017. These days, the only surviving version of Apple’s digital music player still sold in stores is the iPod touch, a fledgling product line which is rumored to be possibly dropping its “touch” moniker and receiving a design overhaul for the 20th anniversary of the iPod (will it be quietly announced today via a press release on apple.com?).

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A ‘Breakthrough’ Device

In an October 2001 press release announcing its new product, Apple described the iPod as, “a breakthrough [digital] music player” that can fit up to 1,000 songs into an ultraportable design that fits in your pocket. The device also featured the following:

  • storage capacity- 5GB
  • weight- 6.5 ounces
  • playback- up to 10 hours (on a single charge)

With the iTunes software and a Mac, you could download an entire music CD and upload it to your iPod in under 10 seconds. According to Apple, this allowed you to transfer 1,000 songs to fill up your device in less than 10 minutes (which the company claimed was 30x faster than competing USB-based digital music players that were on the market before its own came onto the scene).

Additionally, the iPod doubled as a portable FireWire-based external hard drive for storing large documents, photos, or digital movies (which, at the time, did not yet have the ability to display or play back the media files on its screen).

What made the iPod a breakthrough device, however, was its innovative and intuitive interface. With the iPod’s scroll wheel and just your thumb, you could easily navigate the device and quickly access your entire music collection, either by artists, albums, or songs (and even playlists, too).

The iPod — which dropped in stores on November 10, 2001 — cost 399 and came with the iTunes 2 software on a CD, a FireWire (400) cable, a power adapter, and a pair of (the now iconic) white earbuds from Apple (remember the “Silhouette” ads from 2003 to 2008?).

“With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go, said then Apple CEO,Steve Jobs, in the press release. “With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again.”

‘An Icon’ & ‘A Status Indicator’

Back in 2004, in a feature on the “sudden ubiquity of the iPod” for Newsweek, then senior editor and chief technology writer, Steven Levy, who is now the editor-at-large at Wired, wrote about (in addition to how the product came to be) how Apple’s digital music player became something much, much more than a device that played your songs: an icon, a status indicator, and an indispensable part of one’s life (like a “pet” or a new digital “friend”).

In an interview for Newsweek, then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, told Levy that there were never any plans for a music-related initiative when he returned to Apple in 1997. Levy reported that, initially, the company was totally oblivious to the fact that a digital music revolution was taking place. However, per the former senior editor and chief technology writer, once “Jobs & Co.” (Levy’s own words) realized their mistake, along came iTunes and shortly thereafter, the iPod..

“It was, like, on every block, there was someone with white [earbuds],” said Jobs to Levy (referring to his observation during a visit to New York City prior to the interview for Newsweek). “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s starting to happen’!”

Levy noted that Apple wasn’t the first company to create a digital music player with its iPod, but, as he wrote in his piece, “the earlier ones were either low capacity toys that played the same few songs, or brick-size beasts with impenetrable controls.”

According to Levy, following the October 2001 product launch, skeptics scoffed at the iPod’s $399 price tag and the fact that only Mac users could use it (at first). But then, sales began to spike and the iPod quickly became a hit, if not a sensation.

What pushed Apple’s digital music player to the next level was, as Levy reported, a number of important decisions by Jobs that would change the playing field, beginning with an upgrade that increased the storage capacity and the number of songs (from 1,000 initially in 2001 to 10,000 by the time Levy’s piece was written in 2004) while lowering the price (e.g., the second generation iPod started at just $299 for the entry level 5GB model). Then the company released a special version that could run on Windows, dramatically increasing the potential market for iPods (subsequent versions were all compatible on both Mac and PC). Finally, after “intense” (as the former senior editor and chief technology writer described it) negotiations with the record labels, Apple was able to license hundreds of thousands of songs for its iTunes Music Store (its original name when it launched in 2003) which blended seamlessly with the device.

“To 3 million plus owners, iPods not only give constant access to their entire collection of songs and CDs,” wrote Levy (at the time). “But membership into an implicit society that’s transforming the way music will be consumed in the future.”

Related Reading: from the PowerBook Central archives (October 2007) – “‘Which iPod Are You?’ (Good Question)

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