Happy 10th birthday to the iPod - the little machine that changed our lives
Published 24/10/2011 | 10:40
THE IPOD was not the first MP3 player but Steve Jobs and Apple were the first to get the technology so right it became a mass-market product.
When the late Steve Jobs was handed the iPod prototype, he told his engineers it was too big. They said it was as small as it could be, that there was all kinds of technology to fit in that couldn’t be shrunk.
Apple’s chief executive paused and then, so the story goes, dropped the iPod in a fishtank. He pointed to the bubbles coming from the gadget and told the engineers that if there was air in it there was space in it. “Make it smaller,” he ordered.
The story is apocryphal but believable, given Jobs’s perfectionism. When Apple finally launched the iPod, 10 years ago this week, it changed how we listen to music, revolutionising the music industry and transforming Apple.
The iPod was not the first MP3 player but it was the first to get the technology so right it became a mass-market product. Rival machines were bigger and heavier or stored less music, took longer to transfer songs or had poor battery life. The iPod could store 1,000 songs, had a 10-hour battery life and enabled you to transfer lots of songs from your computer quickly. All of this in a device the size of a pack of cards.
Apple decided to build a music player in early 2001, and Steve Jobs asked Jon Rubinstein, head of hardware engineering, to look into it. In January that year Apple introduced iTunes, its music program for Macs. A month later, Rubinstein was shown a 1.8-inch hard drive during a visit to Toshiba in Japan.
“They said they didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe put it in a small notebook,” Rubinstein said later. “I went back to Steve and I said, 'I know how to do this.’ He said, 'Go for it.’”
The only drawback was time: Jobs wanted the iPod to be available that Christmas. A team of 30 began working long hours on Project P-68. Jonathan Ive, the British-born designer who has worked at Apple since 1992, said: “Like everyone else, I knocked myself out, not so much because it was a challenge – which it was – but because I wanted to have one.”
Rubinstein brought in Tony Fadell, an engineer who had been shopping an idea for a digital music player around Silicon Valley for some time. The user interface for the iPod was built on top of software bought in from a company called Pixo and the basic blueprint for the hardware came from a start-up called PortalPlayer.
Ive, who had created the candy-coloured iMacs in 1998, oversaw every detail, from the now-familiar iPod case to the way the box opened when the gadget was unpacked. But input came from across the team: the idea for the scroll-wheel control system came from Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing; the name came from Vinnie Chieco, a freelance copywriter, who said the player reminded him of the escape pods on the spaceship in the film 2001.
Underpinning it all were Jobs’s demands for simplicity and elegance. He stressed how important it was that any song could be reached in three clicks or fewer. “If ever there was a product that catalysed Apple’s reason for being, it’s this,” Jobs said after the iPod was released.
While the competition struggled to shift music players in large numbers, only Apple seemed to understand that the key was to create a complete experience. "It's the whole thing," says Jana Scholze, curator of modern furniture and product design at the Victoria and Albert Museum. "It's the delivery, it's the packaging and how it comes to you."
She notes that Apple's designs come with subtle quirks that provide an emotional connection, whether it's the iMac's superfluous but oddly charming handle or the iPod's vague visual echo of a speaker. Scholze says: "With the help of design, they give people an experience that is far more important than music."
But the reaction was not wholly positive. Many hardcore Apple fans were bemused. "Hey – here's an idea Apple – rather than enter the world of gimmicks and toys," snorted one, "why dont you spend a little more time sorting out your pathetically expensive and crap server line up?"
At $399 (€288), it was too expensive, said critics; others thought the iPod lacked substance. At first, it worked only with Apple’s Mac computers, though in 2002, a Windows-compatible iPod was released. A year later came the iTunes Music Store and a Windows version of iTunes.
"That's when it all started coming together. Sales of the iPod went through the roof," says Feargal Sharkey, the former Undertones singer, who has been buying Apple products since the first Macintosh. Apple sold its millionth iPod in June 2003 and the two millionth six months later. By the end of 2004, it had sold 10 million.
Now chief executive of UK Music, the body that represents the British music industry, Sharkey says the iTunes Store took the record labels totally by surprise. Fearful of online piracy, the labels had been slow to experiment with selling their music digitally. Apple quickly took control of the market. "It was a marriage of phenomenal technology and great content," says Sharkey.
By the middle of the decade, the white iPod earbuds were everywhere (ironically, they were the weakest feature). Apple’s adverts were everywhere, too – dancing silhouettes against bright backgrounds, clasping their iPods – and the message was clear: your music with you, all the time.
Celebrities raved about them too. Moby, the musician, said: "The kind of insidious revolutionary quality of the iPod is that it's so elegant and logical, it becomes part of your life so quickly that you can't remember what it was like beforehand."
As sales grew, so did the iPod range: an iPod Mini, a screen-free Shuffle and the iPod Touch. To date, more than 300 million iPods have been bought.
"It's a real tree of progression," says Graham Barlow, editor in chief of MacFormat magazine. "You can see a clear evolutionary line starting with the iPod.
"It was the start of Apple becoming cool. The iMac redefined Apple but it was the iPod that connected it to something larger, to a world of rock stars and so on."
Jay Elliot, who managed operations for Apple under Steve Jobs in the 1980s and has followed the company closely since, agrees. He says: "The iPod was the vital turning point because it became a market-changer. After that, every product that came out changed the market it was in."
But the iPod would not be the cultural landmark that it is had it only changed markets. It changed the way we listen to music, too. We listen to music more often because we always have it with us. And we listen to playlists, rather than albums.
The album, which is after all just a collection of music largely determined by the capacity of the format on which it's recorded, has been around for just a little over 60 years. It's nowhere near as long-lived an artform as the novel, the symphony or even the feature film. Perhaps it has had its time. Or perhaps not. Sharkey points out that sales of digital albums are growing.
That was one more thing that Jobs foresaw. In 2003, he said: "Nobody thinks of albums anymore, anyway. People think of playlists and mixes. We'll still sell albums as artists put them out, but for most consumers of popular music, we think they'll more likely buy single tracks that they like. And then they'll organise them into cusomized playlists in their computers and on their iPods."
Sales have started to fall, though, as more people carry their music on smartphones, which is why the iPod Touch is not just a music player but a games machine, web browser and communications device. Meanwhile, Apple, Google and Amazon have launched services that let you store music on internet “cloud” servers to be downloaded to whatever device you have. The iPod’s significance has waned but we haven’t lost that desire to carry our music with us.
“Ten years on, the most important thing is that it still has all my favourite tunes on it,” says Sharkey.