The iPod: Seven years on

Christopher Breen
24 October, 2008
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If you haven’t already, be sure to wrap your iPod in wool or copper foil—the substances that traditionally make up gifts given on the seventh wedding anniversary. (Today, y’see, marks exactly seven years since the iPod was first unveiled by Steve Jobs in Cupertino.) By way of tribute, I’d like to present a little history, pulled from my now out-of-print Secrets of the iPod (don’t worry, my just-as-jam-packed-with-iPod-goodness iPod and iTunes Pocket Guide is still alive and well).

Why iPod? With all the wondrous devices to which Apple might have devoted its legendary creative power, why create yet another music player? To learn the answer to this question, you must look at a technology that has changed the way we use and share digital media: MP3.

The MP3 revolution. In 1987, a German company, Fraunhofer IIS-A, began working on a system for creating digital audio files that consumed little storage space while maintaining much of the original file’s quality. Among other things, this work was motivated by the fact that one minute of CD-quality stereo music consumed about 10MB of storage space—storage space that at the time was very costly. The eventual result of this work was something called the MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3 compression standard, now commonly known as MP3.

This standard uses perceptual coding techniques to eliminate audio data that the human ear is unlikely to discern. So efficient is MP3 encoding that you can use it to reduce an audio file’s size by a factor of 12 yet maintain most of the sound quality of the original file. Thanks to MP3, a four-minute song that normally would devour 40MB of hard drive space now weighs in at less than 4MB.

The availability of more-compact and less-expensive storage media—hard drives and media cards—made MP3 an attractive option for use on home computers and, eventually, portable music players. But the fact that such files were easier to store was only one piece of the puzzle. MP3 really came into its own thanks to the widespread dispersal of a seemingly unrelated technology: broadband Internet access.

In the days when much of the world accessed the Internet with slothlike modems, downloading a 4MB file could be an all-night affair. When that file could be downloaded in a minute, the idea of moving high-quality audio files across the Internet became an extremely attractive proposition—particularly among college students who had both lightning-fast, school-supplied access to the Internet and a keen interest in music.

Given that MP3 was a growing concern among such a significant portion of the population, manufacturers of audio devices predictably began seeking ways to incorporate MP3 technology into future products.

Share and share alike. Anyone with the faintest interest in technology has heard of the Napster music-sharing service, through which audio files—largely encoded with MP3—were swapped wholesale across the Internet (much to the chagrin of the recording industry). Music-device manufacturers understood that although those who downloaded MP3 files were pleased enough to play back these files on their computers, many would be even more pleased if they could transport and listen to these files on a portable device.

After the courts determined that such devices were indeed legal—that they were not specifically designed as go-between devices that might aid music piracy, but as a final destination for music files—small MP3 players such as the Rio 600 found their way to market. Regrettably, these players stored less than an hour of music without the addition of expensive media storage cards. (And even with these additional storage cards, such players rarely exceeded two hours’ playing time.)

Moving MP3 files from the computer to the player over the player’s slow serial-port or USB connection could take a long time, and the software required to move files from one device to another was hardly intuitive. Navigating from song to song on these things was a tedious affair, requiring you to page through menu after menu on a tiny screen. Finally, these players cost upward of a couple hundred dollars. Although the technology was interesting, only gearheads with more money than sense were likely to replace their inexpensive portable CD players with one of these devices.

Even with these limitations, portable MP3 players still sold in respectable numbers. But just imagine the kind of sales you could generate if you created a portable music player that successfully worked around the storage, transfer-rate, and navigation problems.

Apple smelled an opportunity.

iPod, arise! On October 23, 2001, Apple held a press conference in Cupertino, California, to announce a new product—the first noncomputer product released by Apple since the ill-fated console gaming system, Pippin, and the first such product produced since Apple co-founder Steve Jobs returned to the company. Web-based rumour sites were rife with speculation about the new device. Would it be a revolutionary personal information manager? An advanced console computing system? The ultimate crock pot?

When Mr. Jobs ended the speculation and revealed the iPod at a press conference, some of those in attendance were disappointed initially. “Sure, it stores a ton of music, offers loads of battery life, transfers files in an instant, and is easy to use (and easy on the eyes). But after all the hype, you’ve called us here to show off an MP3 player? And you want how much for it!? You must be joking!”

Then Apple did a very smart thing. At the end of the event, each person in attendance was handed an iPod of his or her very own.

Cynics among us might suggest that Apple attempted to curry favor and lessen the shock of the first iPod’s $US399 price tag by offering members of the press free swag. Far from it. The folks at Apple understood that to truly appreciate the iPod, you had to hold it in your hand, admire its sleek design, swiftly wheel through its menus, and absorb its rich sound.

The tactic worked. Although nearly every review of the iPod mentioned that $399 was a lot of money for a music player, few disputed the notion that similar devices were clunky and crude in comparison.

Despite the price and the fact that it worked best only with the assistance of a Macintosh computer, the iPod became the music player to own—so much so, in fact, that Apple sold 125,000 of them in the iPod’s first 60 days of existence, and people who had never considered owning a Mac bought one simply so they could use it with the iPod.

All those years ago. So much for history. How did that whole iPod thing work out?

As of September 2008, Apple has sold more than 160 million of the little suckers (32, give or take, to me). That’s one iPod for every man, woman, and child in a country with a population of 160 million people. (Or 160 million iPods for just one of those people.)


Happy Anniversary, iPod!

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