Almost 10 years have passed since Apple introduced the iPod and so much has changed in that time. When the iPod launched in October 2001, music fans were still reeling from the demise of peer-to-peer music-sharing service Napster, which was forced to close in July 1999, and MP3 players from the likes of Creative were gaining popularity. The first iPod was a 5GB hard drive that put “1,000 songs in your pocket”. It cost £349.
Fast forward a decade and the iPod we knew then is all but dead, replaced by the more popular iPod touch, and the even more popular iPhone and iPad. But those three products were born of the iPod, and in this special feature, we pay tribute to its evolution. Without the iPod, Apple probably wouldn’t have become the consumer electronics company it is today.
"Our goal was to design something that would become iconic,” said Apple chief designer, Jonathan Ive, in a promotional video published on 23 October 2001, when the iconic product we now know as the iPod was launched.
The original 5GB iPod was only available for the Mac and transferred all music over FireWire, itself then 30 times faster than the USB used by other MP3 players.
Inspired by file-sharing service Napster, Tony Fadell, known as the ‘father of the iPod’, had the idea of creating a music player with an accompanying music service. The prototype (originally developed at PortalPlayer) was the size of a cigarette packet with several buttons on the front. Fadell joined Apple in 2001 and supervised a top-secret team that worked on iPod hardware development, while the design group created the iPod Click Wheel.
Pre-iPod, digital music players were clunky machines for technologists, not music lovers. All had a short battery life and limited capacity. Most sucked songs from the computer using USB – it took all night to download 1,000 songs to your player. Music management software and navigation was limited and playlists were rarely supported.
The iPod’s design was simple, with a large mechanical wheel and monochromatic screen. Twinned with iTunes (itself based on third-party app SoundJam), the iPod was more intuitive than any other player.
“I’ve had three MP3 players and I haven’t figured out how to use any of them. I held this in my hand and had it figured out in 45 seconds,” said musician Moby, of the original iPod.
Moby loved the iPod “I had it figured out in 45 seconds,” said the artist, speaking in an Apple iPod ad
In now typical fashion for a new Apple product launch, the iPod sold out fast when intoduced in the US and the UK. Whereas Sony took a decade to shift 50 million Walkmans, Apple sold more iPods in half that time. Some 140,000 iPods were sold in under 13 weeks – even at the steep price – proving Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal wrong. “I question the company’s ability to sell into a tight consumer market right now at the iPod’s current price,” he warned. Significant pricing discounts didn’t come until late 2005.
So what was Apple’s secret? Ex-Universal Music executive, Barney Wragg, explained: “What Apple did was prove the iPod isn’t about the technology, but about what it does – it appeals to humans.”
Major strategy change
When the iPod launched, teen music fans were using Napster to get their music because the people selling music were stuck in the past. Apple changed the paradigm. Music labels, so afraid of piracy that they refused to sell digitised versions of songs, agreed to offer music for sale via iTunes on the strength of it being a Mac-only product. They later agreed to support a digital music store for Windows devices in October 2003. With over 314 million iPods sold since 2001 the music player – which still accounts for 70 per cent of global music player sales – set the scene for Apple’s adventures with the iPhone and iPad.
The iPod that started it all weighed just 184g and held up to 1,000 songs
“It will go down in history as a turning point for the music industry. This is landmark stuff. I can’t overestimate it,” said Jobs, on launching the iPod.
How the iPod’s audio quality measures up
There is some difference between the sound quality of vinyl and CD and that of the music you purchase on iTunes or rip from CDs into your digital music collection. That’s because MP3 or AAC digital audio (the normal standards for audio on digital players) is compressed.
This makes tracks smaller – they take up around 10 per cent of the space of an uncompressed track – but also leads to slight differences in audio quality. Bass isn’t as visible and individual notes lose depth. iTunes now encodes CD audio at 256kbps (AAC) by default, the same compression quality as songs sold via iTunes.
Better headphones can make a big difference to your iPod’s sound
While this is fine for casual listeners, audiophiles and music pros often say digitally compressed tracks aren’t as good to listen to as CD originals, and the science backs up that claim. There’s enough truth in the difference that Apple now supports ‘Lossless Audio’.
Approximately half the size of the equivalent track on CD, this format is far closer to CD audio resolution. Apple doesn’t yet sell tracks in this format but iTunes 10 can currently read, write and convert between MP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC and Apple Lossless.