Play Me Something
Apple unveiled the original iPod on October 23, 2001 to a resounding “meh,” but where analysts and the media saw another failure in the making, consumers saw an opportunity to finally have a powerful and easy to use portable music player that just worked. The first iPod looked very much like the current iPod classic, but with a monochrome LCD display, a physical Click Wheel, and a 5GB hard drive.
Critics called the iPod overpriced at US$399, and said Apple was a late-comer to an already established market — a market that belonged to a handful of MP3 players that offered enough storage for only a few songs, and sported interfaces that where cumbersome at best. Apple’s music player, in contrast, was easy to use even with large music libraries, could be used without reading a manual, and transfered songs through FireWire, which pushed data a speeds that far exceeded the performance of the pokey USB 1.1 connections other MP3 players used.
FireWire was a big selling point for the iPod because it let users load their on-the-go music far quicker than the could over USB. Critics saw FireWire’s performance as a major flaw since it limited the iPod just to Mac customers, leaving the much larger Windows market out in the cold. Despite that limitation, the iPod sold, and it sold well.
Apple doubled the iPod’s hard drive storage to 10GB in mid 2002, and introduced a model with a touch-based Click Wheel, replacing the original’s physical Click Wheel. The company followed that up in 2003 by introducing the first iPod with a Dock Connector — a feature that’s still on most iPods to this day.
The iPod continued to gain popularity, and by 2004 was clearly the music player to own. Apple’s white earbuds made it clear which music player you owned, and they were easy to spot everywhere. Those white cords crossed demographics, too, with students, business people and everyone in between sporting Apple’s earbuds connected to an iPod in their pocket or bag.
Apple gave the iPod a little brother in January 2004 with the introduction of the iPod mini. The mini was the first iPod available in several colors — the original was white only — and went on to be the best selling iPod model of the time.
The following January, Apple introduced the iPod shuffle and rolled out the second generation iPod mini. The shuffle was Apple’s first entry into the flash RAM music player market, which also meant the company wasn’t restricted by the physical size of hard drives.
Come September, Apple shocked analysts be discontinuing the mini even though it was the company’s best selling iPod model. Apple introduced the iPod nano as its replacement, and ushered in the era of flash RAM-based music players.
Apple’s decision to kill the iPod nano was a big gamble for the company, but one that paid off in spades since the nano line ultimately turned out to be even more successful than the mini. The nano is currently barely larger than a book of matches, but offers more storage than the original hard drive-based iPod.
Touch Me, Baby
Apple had already dominated the portable media player market by the time former CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January 2007. Mr. Jobs showed off the iPhone, the company’s first combination iPod and smartphone, at Macworld Expo. That was also the first time the world saw the iPhone’s touch-based interface that’s also part of the iPod touch which was introduced in September that same year.
The iPod touch offered many of the same features found on the iPhone: A music and video player, calendar and contact apps, Mobile Safari and Mail, and support for the iTunes Store and — when it finally launched — the App Store.
Apple’s touch interface was intuitive and unlike anything available on any smartphone of the day. While limited compared to iOS now, that first version did away with convoluted menus and settings found on other smartphones, and didn’t include a physical keyboard. Ditching the keyboard for an on-screen keyboard was slammed by Apple’s competition and some analysts, although it has proven popular enough that other companies have since adopted the design for their own devices.
iOS opened the iPod to a wider range of functions thanks to its ability to work with more complex applications. Thanks to Apple’s App Store, the iPod touch has become a popular mobile gaming platform, a pocket-size business tool and a go-anywhere computer. Recent models include cameras for photos and video capture, and every model has included Wi-Fi wireless networking support.
Following the release of the iPhone, and then the iPod touch, Apple eventually released the iPad and now the iPad 2. Unlike the pocketable iPhone and iPod touch, the iPad is a full-on tablet, and like its smaller siblings, has taken over its market.
Competing touch-based interfaces, most notably Google’s Android OS, have hit the market to compete with iOS’s dominance, although so far the must-have devices for consumers still come from Apple.
The design of the iPhone and iPod touch changed how electronics makers built their smartphones and media players from clunky and boxy to more organic and sleek, showing Apple’s heavy influence in the portable electronics market.
Apple’s influence, however hasn’t been limited to product design. The music industry saw new sales thanks to the iTunes Store and its inexpensive song downloads, and the store later added TV shows and movies to its line up, too. The iPad brought us the iBookstore, Apple’s own ebook store, turning the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch into portable book readers, although Amazon already offered a software version of its Kindle ebook reader for Apple’s devices.
Show Me Yours & I’ll Show You Mine
Apple’s dedication to detail helped propel the iPod beyond just a cool music player and into a cultural phenomenon. Nearly everyone has one — or more — and it’s a pretty safe bet that if you ask someone if they have one they’ll pull one out of their pocket to show off.
Ask someone to name an iPod competitor and you’ll be lucky to get a response, or maybe they’ll mention Microsoft’s Zune — which, depending on who you talk to at Microsoft, will tell you it’s been discontinued, or not.
That’s not to say there aren’t other portable media players for consumers to choose from. It does, however, show that our culture has an iPod-or-nothing mentality about media players.
It also seems a safe bet that the iPod in some form will remain a driving force in the portable media player market for some time to come. The iTunes Store is among the top music sellers, the App Store is selling apps in droves, and there aren’t any companies that have been able to match Apple’s complete package from hardware to software and music — at least not yet.
Amazon, Google and Microsoft are hoping to give Apple a run for its money, but for now the iPod game is Apple’s to win or lose, and has been for ten years.