Music to Go: 20 years of the Apple iPod


It allowed millions of people to carry vast music libraries with them in their pockets. It became possible to have an entire music collection with you all the time and always accessible.

And like so many other landmarks of technology, it is now becoming a forgotten footnote in technological history. As music collections have transferred to the online cloud, our reaction to seeing an iPod is no longer one of wonder, but rather a passing comment: “Oh. I had one of these a few years ago, probably still works too.”

The original iPod, which was released on 23 October 2001, was a revolutionary device which changed music listening just as the Sony Walkman had changed the experience 22 years before.

It was a device about the size of a music cassette. But instead of holding about an hour of music on a cassette tape, this 5GB device could hold over 1,000 3-minute songs. Enough for most tastes.

Apple’s iPod took advantage of a number of technological breakthroughs. Software designers had figured out how to encode sound and music as computer files of manageable size: about 3.5 MB for a 3-minute song compared to the 50 MB required by most sound files used in editing. New more affordable small hard drives had become available, which could survive being carried around.

Apple was not the first company to develop a digital music player. There were already digital music players available in the late 1990s. There were even players which held far more songs than the iPod. Not all reviews were positive; the New York Times quoted one analyst who said: "It's a nice feature for Macintosh users. But to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn't make any difference."

The analyst was very wrong. Apple would go on to sell 350 million iPods by 2014, when the company stopped giving regular details for sales of the product.

What Apple did was different and allowed it to dominate the market to such an extent that the word “iPod” became a synonym for MP3-player soon after. Apple offered both a player and a software system, iTunes, which allowed people to buy music easily. The whole system operated more simply than other companies’ offerings, which might just be a player but no simple access to music online. In addition, Apple’s design was simpler and more intuitive than many others, even if it might offer fewer features, such as an FM radio.

Most iPods did not feature any way to connect directly to the internet in order to access music and had to be connected via computers. This means that iPods can be considered as one of the series of gadgets which made computing something for the majority of people rather than just something that technically-inclined people were interested in.

The biggest competitor to the iPod became the smartphone, in particular Apple’s own iPhone. Smartphones were able to do everything that iPods could do, and much more. For many users there seemed little point in having an extra device for music when the smartphone could do it all. The smartphone was also able to connect to the internet directly, without needing a computer connection like the earlier iPods.

Today (2021) the classic iPod is no longer on sale and only the iPod Touch remains available for purchase. The iPod Touch looks practically identical to earlier iPhones, and looks and feels like a smartphone minus the actual dialing capability. One reviewer of the iPod Touch argued that most music functions are actually better-performed by smartphones and that the iPod Touch’s main use may be as a portable gaming device.

The reviewer may have a point, but there may be something rather sad about how the iPod is disappearing from popular consciousness and how quickly it happened. Some readers may remember how old radios or record players might last for decades and be handed down through generations. The iPod has gone from being the ultimate in technological progress to disappearing in less than 20 years.

In 2004, the American actor Will Smith called the iPod “the gadget of the century” despite the century only being four years old. The century still has almost 80 years to go and the gadget has passed out of popular consciousness.

The transience of the iPod also shows us about the risks of betting too heavily on a particular brand or form of technology. Between 2003 and 2012, iPods used a special kind of connection – which other companies did not use – to link to computers and chargers. A whole industry developed to allow iPods to connect to various devices using this connector. Even some automobiles had built-in iPod control systems. However, since Apple changed the connector specification in 2012, many of the devices and connectors have become pointless and redundant. Gyms feature exercise machines with unused iPod connectors, car audio systems still have the connecters available and high-end radios in expensive hotels feature docks and connectors which will never be used. This is frustrating for all concerned.

However, like the Walkman that proceeded it the iPod meant that music and sound would be portable. Life is so much better when we can choose the soundtrack.

- By Murdo MacLeod