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.

While the iPod is a great piece of hardware, iTunes is its essential partner. Its evolution is a story as old as the internet that spawned it. The internet was developed as a communication system for the US military and extended to higher education institutes globally and then to the general public. As the internet evolved, people started swapping data across vast distances. Data can now include JPEGs, TIFFs, MP3s and other music and video files, but music sharing started small on newsgroups and bulletin board systems. Eventually the dedicated Napster service was founded by Shawn Fanning in 1999. This was a music-focused peer-to-peer file-sharing service, which enabled users to easily share digitised music files in huge quantities. Music labels were enraged, complaining of lost sales, and the service was shut down by court order in July 2001.

No turning back

Getting The Beatles to the iTunes Store was a symbolic move

However, the genie was out of the bottle and new file-sharing services sprang up. Fanning had once tried to convince labels to license music sharing within Napster, saying that by earning cents per track labels could generate millions. The labels didn’t listen, but couldn’t stop this digital attack. This was Apple’s opportunity.

SoundJam was a Mac music player that Apple acquired in 2000 before shipping a new version in 2001. Apple was very clever – it ensured that iTunes would allow users to rip their CDs from the start. People quickly began building music collections on their Macs, then, in October that year, Apple introduced the iPod, the perfect companion to the digital music collections that millions of iTunes users had been creating.

“The iPod looks like a piece of hardware, but it’s not. It’s software. And iTunes is the best jukebox and iTunes Music Store is the best digital music distribution service,” said Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

Jobs spent months meeting with labels to convince them to sell music through iTunes, pointing out that they could compete with file-sharing services by offering tracks online legitimately, “to keep honest people honest”.

Apple spent years wooing the music industry, even launching a special edition U2 iPod

Keeping it simple mattered, he argued: “I know you have a thousand ideas for all the cool features iTunes could have. So do we. But we don’t want a thousand features. That would be ugly. Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying no to all but the most crucial features.”

iTunes launched the US iTunes Store in April 2003. This proved a success and was then extended worldwide. Apple is now the world’s biggest music retailer and has sold billions of songs. Many regard the introduction of tracks from The Beatles through the iTunes Store as a watershed moment. “We are now realising a dream we’ve had since we launched iTunes 10 years ago,” said Jobs.

Today’s iTunes also offers music videos, movies, TV shows, books, iTunes U, podcasts and apps. The introduction of a seamless and intuitive content ecosystem wasn’t just good for users, it also helped boost customer loyalty to Apple’s platforms, making them far less likely to try alternatives.

This was the face of iTunes in 2002, when Apple added Smart playlists, new song list categories and more

Bad Apple – critics bemoan closed system

Apple’s iTunes attracts its share of criticism, not least because of its use of proprietary code and the AAC, rather than MP3, music format. The company gets accused of running a ‘closed’ system, not just regarding app support on other platforms, but also for the difficulty in transferring movies and other purchases to other devices.

This criticism reached fever pitch in 2007, when the company faced pressure from competition regulators to open up its iTunes Digital Rights Management (DRM) so that songs purchased through the service could easily be used with other devices. Jobs countered this with a demand for the removal of DRM from music sales, asking labels to drop their demand for it. They did, and today iTunes sells DRM-free music, which can be used with other platforms.

When it comes to movies, things remain challenging: movie studios continue to insist on DRM to protect their wares. The situation is even more complex when it comes to apps – these aren’t just protected in an attempt to minimise software theft, but the apps won’t run on any other platform. Apple’s control over software sold via the App Store also attracts critics, though the more open Android environment lacks the security and malware protections Apple users can take for granted.