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Low End Mac Round Table

Happy 10th Birthday, iPod

Low End Mac Staff - 2011.10.21

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Ten years ago, on October 23, 2001, Apple Computer introduced the iPod, a $399 hard drive-based digital music player that could store one-thousand songs and only worked with Macs.

Needless to say, the world was not impressed. Apple was a computer company - what was it doing in the consumer electronics realm? And did it really think people would pay $400 for a music player?

The original iPod had a 5 GB hard drive and only connected via FireWire. There was no Windows support, so its entire market was composed of Mac users, at that time well under 5% of the computing market.

But Apple understood that Mac users were also the ones most likely to pay $400 for an MP3 player. The iPod was not a runaway success; it took nearly two years for Apple to sell its first million iPods - after adding a Windows version (still FireWire only) in July 2002 and a cross-platform version in April 2003.

iPod sales chart from Wikipedia
Chart by MyShizoBuddy from Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Things really took off when Apple introduced the fourth generation (4G) iPod in July 2004. For the first time, the iPod could sync to PCs using USB instead of FireWire, a port that most PCs did not have. Apple sold 4.4 million iPods in fiscal 2004, 22.5 million in 2005, and sales peaked at nearly 55 million in 2008.

Far more important than the iPod itself is how the iPod changed Apple's course. Apple had been on its deathbed in 1996. Five years later, it added the iPod to its Mac-based business. Six years after that, it introduced the iPhone, followed by the iPod touch. Two years ago it gave us the iPad. The iPod dominates the MP3 player market, the iPhone completely reshaped the smartphone market, the iPod touch is becoming the pre-eminent mobile gaming platform, and the iPad completely dominates the tablet market.

Today our staff looks back at how the iPod was received, how it impacted them, and how it transformed Apple from a computer company into a consumer electronics giant - and the most valuable company on the planet.

Simon Royal (Tech Spectrum): I purchased an original 5 GB iPod (albeit a couple of years after introduction), and it was truly amazing. Coming from a portable Sony MiniDisc recorder, the iPod's storage space was truly massive, and being FireWire based made transferring music to it amazingly quick even on my iMac G3 - and a lot easier.

From then on I have not looked back. I bought a 40 GB iPod photo when they were launched in 2005 and kept it until a few months ago, when I downsized to a 1GB iPod shuffle (second generation), which I think is fantastic. My wife has a 4 GB iPod nano (third generation), and it really is an amazingly tiny and well crafted piece of kit.

The iPod changed portable music players, like the Walkman did in the 80s. I could never see myself using any other type of MP3 player. I am not a fan of the touchscreen iPod (including the iPhone); I think they have lost their original purpose and simplified menu system. iPods are first and foremost for playing music and lasting half-a-day on a single charge.

Brian Gray (Fruitful Editing): I didn't get my first iPod until 2005, an iPod mini 4 GB model that was a birthday gift from my wife. But I had spent the previous two years glued to eBay trying to win one. I was always outbid, but I just had to have one of these.

My iPod helped me quit smoking. No kidding. I received my current 5G Nano last year and started using the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit to start running. Without the lightweight Nano and all the functions of the Nike+ kit, I might have lost motivation. But instead it helped me continue running and eventually quit smoking completely.

That's a pretty serious impact on my life! Thank you, iPod.

Dan Knight (Mac Musings): My first iPod was a second-hand 10 GB first generation model, purchased from Small Dog Electronics if I recall correctly. It was especially nice for taking walks with my wife - each of us would pop in one earbud so we could walk, listen to music, and talk. When the hard drive failed, I transplanted a 20 GB microdrive, which I used until it died. The larger drive also gave me room to backup crucial files from my Mac.

My second iPod was a second-hand 60 GB iPod photo, which I believe came from PowerMax. I bought it primarily as a backup device to store a copy of Low End Mac and all of my business files. It was also great for taking walks with my wife, and with an FM transmitter, we could listen to it in the car as well. It hasn't seen much use in recent years, and it mostly lives on the dock of our stereo system or next to it.

My wife and I got iPhones this past June, and we love them. The size is just right, the phone features are a big improvement over our old un-smart phones, and apps are wonderful. It's nice being able to check in on Facebook from anywhere, look up a phone number or hours for a business while on the road (GPS doesn't give you that), and have access to the Web at any time. Thanks to Steve Jobs taking a chance on the iPod, Apple went from survival mode to thriving, and the iPhone owes it existence to that success.

Allison Payne (The Budget Mac): I could write a whole article about how Apple changed the MP3 player and how the iPod changed Apple, but the evolution of both is a matter of public record.æ

What I realize, looking back, is that the iPod has changed the way I think about gadgets and mobile computing.

Five years ago, if you had asked me if I would ever buy an iPod, let alone more than one, I would have said no. They were too expensive, they were Mac-only (for awhile), they were luxury items, etc. But in the last few years, Apple has changed the game and shaken up the whole idea of what an MP3 player can be.

I actually didn't own an iPod until the original iPod touch debuted. I didn't even think of it as a media player; it was the pocket computer I'd been dreaming of since my Palm Pilot died in high school. After a few weeks, I was using all of its features, and I remember marveling at what Apple had created.

The only downside was that it was a little too chunky for listening to music while working out, so I eventually supplemented it with a refurb iPod shuffle 3G. I still consider that Shuffle to be the perfect dedicated MP3 player.

That setup worked well for years, and I would have happily continued with it until Apple added the cameras and Retina Display to the Touch with the 4G. Between those features and all of the great apps that I could use in my computer business, I just had to upgrade.
The 1G Touch is now my husband's, and the 4G is virtually an extension of my body. I should probably be a little worried about that, but, like I said, things change. I can't imagine my life or my business without an iPod.

Charles Moore (several columns): My first iPod was the original, one of the 5 GB analog models introduced in October 2001, its serial number indicating that it was built that first month. It came to me secondhand several years later, but my daughter did buy one identical to it a month or so after they came out. I thought the $399 (US) price tag was more than a bit over the top for a digital jukebox - and still do. That's only $100 less than the sticker for my 16 GB iPad 2, and I think it was overpriced.

Frankly, I originally thought the iPod was a bit of a gimmick, rather than the spearhead of a revolution that it turned out to be. Who knew? Obviously Steve Jobs, who declared at the iPod unveiling on October 23, 2001, "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. With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again." And so it hasn't been.

One of the things I loved about the early iPods was their FireWire interface, although that wouldn't help me much today, since my current 2008 Unibody MacBook has no FireWire port. Another favorite feature of those original machines was the mechanical scroll wheel, which I like the feel of much better than the solid-state version on the iPod nano that eventually replaced the classic iPod when the latter's hard drive expired. I handed it off to my daughter as a parts mule, but the hard drive in hers died as well.

Today my "iPod" is my iPad 2, and my daughter's is her iPhone, which is probably indicative as to why iPod sales are flagging.

Further Reading

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