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Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

Kirk McElhearn | July 22, 2014
The iPod helped turn Apple Computer into Apple, Inc., from a computer company into one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

As the 80s started, I was buying music on cassette instead of LP, because of the Pressman. Back then, I was listening to The Cure, Joy Division, and what is certainly one of the best albums of the period: The Clash's London Calling. Listening to that music in stereo as I wandered the streets hooked me on portable music listening forever.

The real revolution came in 1980, when Sony introduced the Walkman, which took the Pressman concept and miniaturized it. This device brought portable listening to the masses, and people wearing headphones soon became the symbol of music listening. But the Walkman quickly attracted competition, and Sony soon lost its dominance of the market. When I set out to travel around Europe in 1984, I bought an Aiwa cassette player, which had some features that bested Sony's devices. With a dozen 120-minute cassette tapes--some recorded from my LP collection--I had twenty or so hours of music to accompany me on that journey.

And let's not forget the boombox. In New York City, where I lived, you heard boomboxes everywhere in the early 1980s; you'd see people struggling down the streets with suitcase-sized devices on their shoulders. But the boombox was more of a social tool. I remember hanging out in a park in my Queens, New York, neighborhood, listening with friends to live Grateful Dead tapes on boomboxes; unlike the Walkman, which shut people out, the boombox brought people together in shared listening.

2001: An Apple odyssey

In the late 1990s, the advent of the MP3 format led to the first portable digital media players. They were small, yet clunky to use. You had to press buttons to navigate menus that often only displayed a dozen or so characters of a song title or artist name. You had to manually copy music onto memory cards, then insert those into the devices. Without USB, MP3 players didn't yet connect to computers.

The first such player actually wasn't designed for music, but rather for audiobooks. The Audio Player from was a small device released in 1997; with just 4MB of storage, it was designed to play Audible's low bit-rate audiobook files. Shortly after that, the first hard drive based players were released: the Creative NOMAD and Archos Jukebox both initially shipped in 2000, and were among the first devices that used USB to transfer files. But early USB was very slow, and it took hours to fill their 6GB drives.

Apple launched the iPod in 2001--a pivotal year in Apple's history. Around the same time, Apple was also releasing increasingly innovative Macs, including metal-body PowerBooks, white iBooks, flat-panel iMacs, and, on the software side, the first versions of Mac OS X (10.0 Cheetah and 10.1 Puma). Apple wouldn't innovate that much in such a short period of time again until the 2007 release of the iPhone.


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