Honoring the Little Device with a Big Legacy
This past week my alma mater Apple announced it was officially ending the life cycle of one of its most iconic products — the beloved iPod. There were other portable MP3 players in the late 90s, but they were somewhat crude, limited in their capacity (they could maybe hold a couple dozen songs) — and they had limited sales. It wasn’t until Steve Jobs launched the iPod in October 2001 that music became liberated and the masses became untethered in a whole new way.
“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. Listening to music will never be the same again.” And it wasn’t. The first iPod jump started the rise of digital music, and quickly became a ubiquitous flagship product for Apple that would become a coveted cultural icon globally.
There was something special about the iPod as it created a whole new level of fan devotion and unleashed a whole new generation of music lovers. Of course Steve’s magical “Wonka-esque” announcement at launch about being able to carry 1,000 songs in your pocket was a powerful lure. But in actual practice, fans felt more connected to their music, it was a more personal experience, and it was now also much easier to share mixes with friends.
The iPod was small, sexy, and of course beautifully designed to take with you everywhere (and it became more so with each ensuing iteration). It was a device that gave you a reason to actually turn your phone off (!), and be fully immersed in enjoying your favorite songs and customized playlists — with no dependency on streaming services, though of course that’s where things ultimately evolved to. Here’s a great article that takes a more in-depth look at every iPod ever made.
The iPod’s development coincided with Apple’s acquisition of a company with MP3 software that would become the basis for the iTunes music service, a digital jukebox that organized people’s music libraries so that they could quickly create playlists and transfer songs. It powered Jobs’ vision for how people would buy music in the digital age. “We think people want to buy their music on the internet by buying downloads, just like they bought LPs, just like they bought cassettes, just like they bought CDs,” he said in a 2003 talk.
Perhaps the iPod’s most important contribution was its role as a catalyst for the creation of the iPhone. When Apple launched the iPhone in January of 2007, it sparked the demise of the iPod whose sales declined steadily until 2014 when the iPod Classic was ultimately discontinued.
The iPhone continued to draw on the blend of software and services that had made the iPod successful. The success with iTunes, which allowed customers to back up their iPhone and put music on the device, was mirrored by the development of the App Store, which allowed people to download and pay for software and services. Of course the Apple App Store is a multi-billion dollar industry in its own right both for Apple itself and for its legion of developers.
As Jobs famously said, “you can only connect the dots looking backwards.” None of these seismic developments would have happened without the iPod.
According to Statista, in 2014, the last year Apple broke down iPod sales as a separate category, the company sold 14.4 million iPods, down from nearly 55 million units in 2008. That year (2014), the iPod accounted for just 1.25 percent of Apple’s revenue, explaining why the company had no problem pulling the plug on two of the last three remaining models in 2017. The iPod touch has been the last iPod in market since Apple discontinued the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano back in 2017.
Since introducing the iPod in 2001, Apple has sold an estimated 450 million of them, according to Loup Ventures, a venture capital firm specializing in tech research. Last year (2021) it sold an estimated 3 million iPods, a fraction of the estimated 250 million iPhones it sold.
I’m guessing many people haven’t thought about the iPod in years because once they had their iPhone, obviously music was baked in as a featured experience from the get go.
“Today, the spirit of iPod lives on. We’ve integrated an incredible music experience across all of our products,” Greg Joswiak, Apple’s SVP of Worldwide Marketing, said in a statement, implying that since the iPhone was launched, there’s no need for a standalone music player any longer.
As Tripp Mickle of the New York Times wrote in a piece he published last week, “as Apple announced it has phased out production of its iPod Touch, it brings an end to a two-decade run of a product line that inspired the creation of the iPhone and helped turn Silicon Valley into the epicenter of global capitalism.” RIP iPod; though small in size, your impact was truly pivotal.