For being the gateway gadget to the iUniverse
“One thousand songs in your pocket.”
That’s how Apple CEO Steve Jobs sold the iPod when he introduced it in October 2001. Roughly the size of a deck of cards, the otherworldly gadget was essentially a superglam MP3 player. Yet little did the world (and perhaps even Jobs) know that the project would lay the groundwork for so much more. In just under six years, the iPod would hit 100 million in sales—making it Apple’s first uber-successful foray outside of computers. Perhaps more importantly, it went on to build a legacy that not only reshaped a company, but reshuffled entire industries. Here’s a breakdown of the iPod’s web of influence and inspiration.
- Earbuds: When Apple’s white earbuds started shipping with the iPod, they quickly became one of the trendiest fashion statements of the early aughts. Inspired by the look of Star Wars stormtroopers, the earbuds are now synonymous with Apple. AirPods, the latest version, which connect via Bluetooth, have dominated the industry since their 2016 release. In 2018, Apple accounted for 60 percent of the global wireless earbuds market, according to Counterpoint Technology Research.
- iTunes: Launched in 2003, Apple’s venerable media app was the quintessential iPod companion. The app gave listeners a place to (legally) download music on a song-by-song basis, thus freeing consumers from the tyranny/pleasure of purchasing full albums. In less than five years, it became the world’s largest music retailer, giving Apple serious cred to influence the music industry and digital rights management—and adding another nail in the coffin of once-popular record stores. Then, in what some might call a well-deserved twist of fate, iTunes itself got killed off in 2019, in favor of its natural successor, streaming, represented by Apple Music.
- User experience: Apple applied its mantra of simplicity to the iPod, with Jobs insisting to the entire design team, including chief designer Jonathan Ive, that users be able to get to any song or function on the device within three clicks. “The click-wheel in the front of the device was, at the time, a very intelligent way of navigating long lists of songs,” says industrial designer Philip Andersson of Kilo Design. The design choice marked the beginning of the gestural navigation—scrolling and swiping, not merely clicking a button—that we rely on today.
- Product design: What makes the iPod one of the most iconic products of the last 20 years is the way that its hardware and software interface were designed in unison, says Andersson. “It’s a good example of ‘form follows function’ and the iconicity it can create,” he says. Even the packaging and the earphones were well-designed, with the latter “a strongly recognizable feature that became as iconic as the product itself.” Design has since become a central business function, from IBM to PepsiCo.
- Portable digital devices: People didn’t always feel compelled to carry their tech around with them—until the iPod. And the advent of smaller, lighter versions heralded a new spin on the movement: “the beginning of self-monitoring, and fitness- and lifestyle-orientated tech,” says Michael Bull, author of a book on iPod culture. “It feeds right into what the Apple Watch does now.”
- Smart accessories: The iPod was the first to spawn its own ecosystem of accoutrements, from cases to docking stations—launching an entire industry that could hit US$74 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.
- iPhone: As Apple improved the iPod—adding a touch screen, more storage and the ability to play videos—the company slowly built a blueprint for the iPhone juggernaut. While that signature smartphone eventually led to the demise of the iPod, Apple emerged even more powerful: Today the iPhone pulls in US$26 billion in revenue, helping Apple to secure its spot as the first U.S.-trillion-dollar business in the United States.
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