Thoughts on the iPod (2001–2017)

“Dead!?” Mine still works!
I started working for Apple Germany in January 2001.

It was a few years after the release of the iconic Bondi Blue iMac and the deal with Microsoft. The worst of the dark ages were over. But still, many of my friends were astounded, when Microsoft and Linux would obviously split the market in the future, and Apple had no future. My main reason for joining was that I was that I was excited for Mac OS X, which was (in my opinion) the only OS that successfully combined a decent UI with a Unix core. I got the job then because I knew both Mac and Unix.

Even though Mac OS X 10.0 (later known as Cheetah) had been released earlier that year, the uptake with customers was still minuscule as major third party vendors were slow to adopt the new platform. (You’re thinking Adobe, but the main laggard was actually Quark. Adobe would gain market share from adopting Mac OS X quickly, but I am leaping ahead here.) Apple’s main “bread’n butter” business was selling PowerMac G4 and the new Titanium PowerBook G4 to print and design professionals.

Because of time zones Keynotes were shown in the Apple Germany Office after hours. For the Keynote in October 2001 there were only three people who stayed to watch. The rumor mill had predicted some ‘iTunes announcement.’ Most co-workers dismissed the iPod as a toy that wouldn’t help us sell Macs.

I had been eyeing other MP3 players and really liked the idea of a ‘1000 Songs in Your Pocket.’ So I took advantage of the employee deal to buy an iPod for half price. When I finally got my iPod it quickly became a “must carry” device along with my cell phone.

It is really hard to remember that we used to have at best one or two handful of music CDs or cassettes with us when we were on the road.

Over the next few months and years, I would count the increasing number of people wearing the iconic white headphones on my commute on the Munich S-Bahn (metro). At first there’d only be a few and we would exchange knowing nods, as if we were the members of some secret club. From that anecdotal count and from the sales numbers it was obvious that Apple was on to something. Interestingly, the Mac sales numbers rose together with iPod sales. The press and Apple executives called this the ‘halo effect.’

My main job during the early first decade of the millennium was consulting IT departments, mainly on Xserves, Xserve RAIDs and Xsan (which were introduced just a few months later). Many customers were, however, much more interested in the latest iPod. Mac and Xserve was work, but iPods were fun! I remember doing a workshop at a university on Mac/Unix/Servers and Storage when the news dropped that the iTunes Store was now (finally) available in Germany. This announcement got cheers and applause from an IT crowd.

The iPod certainly turned out to be a successful ambassador for Apple. It gave Apple good press and helped raise the image of Apple out of permanent ‘beleaguered’ status. It also showed that design and user experience could be successful against mere feature lists and price. The combination of operating system, interface and hardware from the same designer mattered and made the difference. This emboldened Apple to stick to this same philosophy with the Mac.

Once cell phones started storing and playing music, the demise of the iPod was obvious, though it was a slow recline. Apple did the ‘courageous’ act of cannibalizing their own product with the iPhone.

Yesterday, Apple removed the last dedicated iPods from the Store and the webpage. The iPod lives on in the iPod touch and the Music app on iPhones and iPads. It still marks the end of an era.

The iMac demonstrated that Apple could and would keep doing what Apple was good at: building great personal computers. The iPod showed that Apple could be more than that.

The iPod transformed Apple from a one-product company (the Mac), to a consumer electronics company with multiple product lines and platforms. Apple had attempted this before with the Newton, but had not been successful. Ironically, they probably were not even planning this with the iPod. The iPod also lead to the iTunes Store, which was the platform the AppStore is based on.

Not bad for a “lame” product.

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