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An Icon Drops from the Tree

By Michael Castelluccio
July 1, 2022

Apple created its first iPod portable media player in 2001, and like the iPhone later, it at one point accounted for about half (48%) of the company’s annual profits.

 

For many consumers, it was their introduction to Apple products, and the small handheld device helped establish the “computer as a hub” architecture upon which much of today’s Apple enterprise rests.

 

 

The first-generation iPod was built in eight months and was debuted by Steve Jobs on October 23, 2001. It wasn’t the first music player of its kind, but by 2011, Apple had captured 70% of the global market share for MP3 players. Then, on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, Apple announced that it was discontinuing the iPod. At that point, 450 million iPods had been sold around the world.

 

AN ODD NAME

 

The code name for that first iPod was Dulcimer. A number of companies had already released MP3 players, so the Apple version had to be something special. Jobs was obsessed with the miniaturization of the player, and that created one of the more memorable anecdotes about Jobs’s approach to management. The engineers brought the first prototype to him, and he examined it and told them it was too big. They explained that they had to “reinvent the invention” to get it to that size and anything smaller was impossible. Jobs walked over to an aquarium in the room and dropped the iPod in. When it hit bottom, bubbles emerged from the case and he said, “Those are bubbles. That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

 

The official name of “iPod” for Apple’s first MP3 player was suggested by copywriter Vinnie Chieco because the device reminded him of the white pod bay doors on the spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The iPod took off slowly, partly because of the price ($399) and also because it was only compatible with Macs in a predominantly PC world. Some tech bloggers sarcastically suggested the name iPod was an acronym for “idiots price our devices” or “I’d prefer owning disks.” In the end, Jobs had the last laugh as that first-generation iPod created a cash cow for Apple, and that model eventually was enshrined on display at the Museum of Modern Art in the Apple Industrial Design Group.

 

THE COMPUTER AS HUB

 

The year before the arrival of the iPod, Jobs decided that Apple computers would evolve into something more than just personal computers. Walter Isaacson, the biographer who wrote Steve Jobs, explained Jobs’s plan. “The personal computer would become a ‘digital hub’ that coordinated a variety of devices, from music players to video recorders to cameras. You’d link and sync all these devices with your computer, and it would manage your music, pictures, video, text, and all aspects of what Jobs dubbed your ‘digital lifestyle.’” This was coordinated with plans to create new hardware that included the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Overseeing these strategies, Jobs also declared, “We shouldn’t get into any business where we didn’t control both the hardware and the software, otherwise we’d get our heads handed to us.”

 

In 1999, Apple began to produce application software for the Mac that focused on people “at the intersection of art and technology.” Those apps included music and photography with iMovie, iPhoto, and GarageBand. The hardware followed the software, including the portable music player for the iTunes catalog. Isaacson wrote, “Thus was born the iPod, the device that would begin the transformation of Apple from being a computer maker into being the world’s most valuable company.”

 

WHY END THE SUCCESS?

 

Apple stopped selling the iPod Nano and Shuffle versions of the player in 2017, and that left the iPod Touch alone in the space. Eventually, the iPod Touch created a redundancy that was somewhat self-defeating. The Touch not only plays music, but it also takes photos, plays videos, has a browser, sends emails, and even makes video calls. As alternates, the iPhone, iPads, and Macs all duplicated the musical abilities of the Touch, and each of those could do more.

 

In Apple’s combination press release/eulogy titled “The music lives on,” there’s a lead photograph of the first iPod Classic and a family album of the iPod Mini, Nano, Shuffle, and Touch. Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing declares in the release: “Today, the spirit of iPod lives on. We’ve integrated an incredible music experience across all of our products, from the iPhone to the Apple Watch to HomePod mini, and across Mac, iPad, and Apple TV.”

 

Postmortem note: On the Tuesday that Apple announced the end of manufacture, a first-generation iPod sold for $1,600, and a mint first-generation white iPod was listed on eBay for $23,000.

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the technology editor for Strategic Finance for 26 years. His SF TechNotes blog is in its 23rd year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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