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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.

Just as the Sony Walkman wasn't original--there had been other portable cassette players before--the iPod was built on existing MP3 player designs. Yet Apple figured out a way around the most annoying aspect of those earlier devices--the problem of transferring music to them. Apple had released iTunes--which let you rip and burn CDs on your Mac--earlier that year. But when the iPod was introduced, iTunes took over the task of moving music to that device. You no longer had to drag and drop files and folders to a device to move music. And, with 5GB storage on that first iPod, most people could copy their entire music libraries automatically to their iPods. Without iTunes, the iPod might not have succeeded.

Apple's first iPod press release bragged about the device's ability to hold "1,000 CD-quality songs," its "ultra-portable, 6.5 ounce design," and "Auto-Sync, which automatically downloads all your iTunes songs and playlists into your iPod." Apple also pointed out that "iPod's built-in FireWire port lets you download an entire CD into iPod in under 10 seconds and 1,000 songs in less than 10 minutes--30 times faster than USB-based players."

With the release of a Windows-compatible iPod less than a year later, the iPod generation took off. Apple now was all about music, and the iPod was its flagship product. With upgrades to the initial iPod and new models released annually, Apple's product presentations often ended with bands playing their latest hits. From U2 to Coldplay, Apple courted the most popular artists to tout the devices that could play their music.

With the iPod, Apple decimated all other music players, achieving 95% market share at its peak. The distinctive white earbuds soon became ubiquitous on trains, buses and the street. The iPod was so successful that nothing else would do: if you were going to get a portable music player, it simply had to be an iPod.

Twilight of the iPod

It seems like it was only yesterday when the iPod was the world's hottest consumer-electronics gadget. But just as the once mighty Walkman faded away, so is the iPod fading away now. In its heyday in 2009, Apple sold some 22 million of the things in the holiday quarter; in the same quarter of 2014, it sold 6 million, a drop of more than 50 percent compared to the year before. (By comparison, in that same 2014 quarter, the company sold 51 million iPhones.). Once Apple's cash cow, the iPod represented just over 1% of the company's overall revenue in the second quarter of 2014, and that decline is expected to continue.

Even Apple apparently considers the iPod's history to be over: Its iPod + iTunes Timeline page ends in 2010.


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