Memory Lane: 20 years since the Apple iPod launched

Apple, News


Unbelievably, it’s 20 years since the very first Apple iPod was sold, revolutionising personal audio in the process. Simon Poulter of Where Are We Now takes a trip down memory lane to a device that transformed Apple’s fortunes as well as changing music culture forever…

Apple provided an unsolicited reminder on Monday of just how much disposable income I’ve channelled its way over the last 20 years. It wasn’t pretty. The company’s latest Event (grandiose capital E intended) opened with a slick video of a bespectacled youth in his garage (Silicon Valley, we presume) firing up old Apple devices to sample their start-up chimes, thumbwheel clicks and even the snap of an AirPods case being closed. The samples were then combined into a piece of vibrant groove music with which to fanfare CEO Tim Cook for his introduction to the company’s presentation of new MacBooks.

As the 90-second clip spun past, I caught sight of an original ‘jelly-coloured’ iMac, and the first iPod, which launched 20 years ago on October  23rd, 2001 (you can see the original launch in the YouTube video below).  These were the gateway drugs that hooked me on Apple, committing me to at least three generations of iMac, four iPods and their natural successor, the iPhone, along with iPads, MacBooks, a MacMini, and an entire drawer full of accessories for all of them. All in the space of 20 years. I shudder to think how much it has all cost.

To go back a little further, I started using Apple products professionally in the early 1990s, learning the art of desktop publishing and layout work for magazines and print advertising on the job thanks to intuitive hardware and software that made it so easy. On my first morning in Sky TV’s Creative Services department, I was shown how to use QuarkXPress and Adobe Illustrator on the Mac, and six weeks later I was driving past a 96-sheet billboard for The Simpsons on the A3 that I’d designed myself.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

I would subsequently spend hours drooling at Apple laptops in the window of a high-end computer dealer in Chiswick, like Mike Myers coveting the white Stratocaster in Wayne’s World. Alas, they were all well beyond my pay packet. Then, in 1998, Apple launched the iMac, and instantly made home computer ownership fun, accessible and, to a certain extent, affordable. I eventually bought one in early 2001 when I moved to Silicon Valley myself. My apartment was a 10-minute straight-line drive from the Apple HQ in Cupertino, which meant that I was soon drinking the local Kool-Aid. 

Armed with a relocation allowance, I bought an iMac from the local Fry’s Electronics toy shed, the very first PC I’d ever owned that hadn’t been provided for me by an employer. By acquiring that iMac I’d bought into the “digital lifestyle” that Steve Jobs had started pitching. “Rather than just hear about megahertz and megabytes,” an Apple press release for the iMac trilled at the time, “customers can now learn and experience the things they can actually do with a computer, like make movies, burn custom music CDs, and publish their digital photos on a personal website.”

Even in 2001, some time after the Dot Com bubble had burst, Jobs was able to apply his quasi-rock star appeal to turning the functional business tool that most PCs were into a desirable piece of consumer electronics. Key to this was a shift in connectivity that Jobs had foreseen, particularly enabled by the emergence of FireWire technology that could attach digital cameras and other peripherals to PCs, enabling content to be quickly extracted and then, with easy-to-use software, turned into something creative. Thus, he commenced the ‘consumerisation’ of professional applications, turning applications like Final Cut Pro into iMovie, which enabled anyone to make something polished of their holiday videos. The same philosophy was applied to making music with GarageBand when it launched in 2004, providing anyone with a Mac – and, now, even an iPhone and iPad – with the means to record their own compositions.

Space Odyssey

2001 was a significant year in many ways. Whether it was the arrival of the actual year of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, or the first year-proper of the 21st century, in technology terms, it was the year that Apple moved into fifth gear. When I arrived in California in March that year, the previous decade’s consumer tech boom was already giving way to other things, like biotech and healthtech. Apple, however, was laying the foundations of the imperiousness that, by 2020, made it the first US company to exceed a market cap of $2 trillion. Today it has a higher value than the GDP of Russia, Canada, South Korea and Italy.

On 9 January, 2001, Jobs announced iTunes, an app partly purloined from elsewhere (SoundJam) which, in a music industry-baiting move, enabled CDs to be ripped using the latest version of the iMac’s optical drive. This made it easy to build-up a personal digital music library, eventually allowing it to burn compilation CDs like mix tapes. 

What was missing, however, was portability. By the mid-1990s, the travelling music fan still had to pack CDs and even cassettes to listen to on clunky portable players. Sony’s MiniDisc at least attempted to miniaturise music into a smaller form factor, while Philips’ failed Digital Compact Cassette was merely a means of extending patent revenue from the humble magnetic tape with the addition of digital recording. Audiophiles gave both DCC and MiniDisc a notable swerve. The advent of the MP3 digital audio standard in 1994 led to various companies launching players, like Diamond’s Rio in 1998. Most, Steve Jobs told his executive team, at least according to biographer Walter Isaacson, “truly sucked” which is why he tasked Apple to produce one of its own. 

Better digital sound

Jobs pulled together a team that included former Philips manager Tony Fadell (who’d worked on the Velo and Nino Windows CE devices I helped launch in the UK) and Apple’s hardware engineering lead, Jon Rubinstein, to come up with something better, challenging them to have something ready for an October unveiling ahead of the Christmas sales season.

Isaacson’s seminal authorised biography Steve Jobs explains in forensic detail the process that saw the product take shape, with Jobs himself giving fastidious daily feedback on what he, as a music fan, wanted from the device, prescribing his desire to make the product simple to use, with navigation restricted to a “three clicks” maximum. Another of Jobs’ insights was that the device had to work with the iTunes app on the iMac, making the computer the primary interface for music library management.

Further discussions were held, with Jobs now adding his views on the minutiae of things like the colour of the accompanying headphones, with Apple design chief Jonny Ive throwing in his thoughts on the product’s white-and-polished stainless steel colour scheme. Then came a back-and-forth about the device’s marketing, with the eventual execution of “1,000 songs in your pocket” emanating from one of the Apple CEO’s encounters with Toshiba in Japan, who first flagged the idea of a 5-gigabyte hard drive that could store such an amount of music. 

Amazing little device

On 23 October 2001, the result of all this rapid endeavour was revealed. Barely a month after 9/11, a world numbed by the atrocity was introduced to the iPod – a device which, arguably, set in train Apple’s evolution and lit the touchpaper of a technology-led transformation. Journalists had been invited to Cupertino for what was, by today’s standards, a relatively modest Apple event, but one in which they’d been teased cryptically – “Hint: it’s not a Mac.” On stage, Jobs theatrically produced from his jeans a small white device to which he  declared: “This amazing little device holds a thousand songs, and it goes right in my pocket.” 

Compared to the 160GB capacity iPods Apple would later offer, the 5GB hard drive of that first model seems modest now, but surely a music player capable of storing 1,000 songs had instant appeal? Not, according to some critics, who branded the device too expensive at $399 and limited in what it could do. Some even went as far as suggesting that Jobs and Apple had bitten off more than the brand could chew, as with the failed Newton PDA. But Jobs stuck to his conviction: “Music is a part of everyone’s life,” he said, “and because it’s a part of everyone’s life, it’s a very large target market all around the world. It knows no boundaries.” 

While sales of that first iPod – and the quickly added second 10GB model – weren’t stellar, Apple had nevertheless done it again – introducing something that already existed and created a category out of it. History has been more kind to the first iPods, with many believing that it was the first truly great MP3 player. Jobs’ instincts about the digital music player field had been right. The iPod was a milestone in portable audio, but more importantly, it sparked Apple’s transformation from a relatively esoteric computer brand to one of the biggest companies on the planet. 

iPhone descendant

That first iPod and its many descendants would ultimately give way to the iPhone (the iPod Touch is even a hybrid of both), in which Apple repeated the principle all over again and reinvented the nascent smartphone category. It’s worth remembering that in October 2001 there was no social media as we know it today, and Napster had been a relatively momentary irritation to the music industry, so the idea of a pocket device that could connect to always-on streaming services over super-fast, low-latency mobile networks was a long, long way off. 

The iPhone has, of course, coalesced many functionalities into one platform – music, camera, television, cinema, e-mail, Web browsing and so on – but without the iPod to begin with, Apple might not have gone anywhere near phones, AirPods, iPads, TV set-top boxes or any one of the myriad product lines that I seem to have spent a stupid amount of my hard-earned on over 20 years.

And you know what? I don’t regret a single penny of it. At one point in time I even thought about buying several iPod Shuffles, the inch-square music players with a 2GB capacity, that were available in six colours. The idea was to have different genres of music on each of them. And while I resisted that idea, I’ve certainly succumbed to the iPod’s appeal, owning four of them!

© Simon Poulter 2021
At the beginning of this September, I was digging around in that drawer of Apple bits-and-pieces and found the second iPod I owned – a third-generation, 30GB model from 2003, a fifth-generation model with a whopping 80GB capacity, a 16GB fourth-generation iPod Nano bought, on a whim, in Los Angeles, and an even cuter seventh-generation Nano bought, again, on a US trip in 2012.

Place in history

When the definitive history of Apple Computer gets written, it will no doubt be the iPhone that commands the most attention, but the iPod deserves its place. In fact, more than that – it deserves acknowledgement for its singular contribution to culture. It has become, according to Leander Kahney, who wrote The Cult Of Mac, “the signature technology of the digital music era” and “profoundly” changed music culture. 

Steve Jobs saw that technology offered something more rewarding in people’s lives – ironically, a vision that has proven stupendously rewarding for Apple itself.  The iPod was, perhaps, the point of origin for that vision, and I don’t think it hyperbolic to say that has directly influenced much of Apple’s product development history over the last 20 years. Nor is it over the top to claim that the iPod and its lineage have contributed to a single-handed transformation of modern life. And that’s quite some claim. 

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Simon Poulter’s blog, Where Are We Now? You can read the full version here:

Chris Price