In Soviet Cupertino, Apple Portable Music Player Owns You

Just over five years ago today, Apple Computer invited members of the press to an event in which Apple would introduce “a breakthrough digital device”. The all-knowing Mac rumor mill quickly swung into action, revealing that the device would be a music device, possibly a portable MP3 player, not a portable MP3 player, a wireless standalone cd- writer, a floor wax, and a dessert topping. Six days later – five years ago, today – Steve Jobs finally got on stage and introduced an overpriced MP3 player, and everyone yawned. Hindsight being 2020, I’d like to put on my product manager hat and opine on why it’s something anybody cares about today.

1st generation: Oct 23, 2001

c/o: Rjcflyer@aol.com cc

Before I do that, I should clarify something: I do not work for Apple. I have never worked for Apple. I do have friends who work for Apple and they don’t tell me squat about what goes on there. I didn’t bother to talk to any of them about the contents of this article – they’d just refuse to comment. This article reflects my opinion only, and not the opinion of anyone else who writes on this site, nor the opinion of any of my past, present or future employers.

For those who have just returned from 6 years in Subrockistan, the iPod is a portable MP3 player with a few notable qualities:

  1. You can update the contents of the iPod, and charge the battery, merely by plugging the iPod into your computer.
  2. It has a staggeringly simple interface – some might say too simple.
  3. You can find them for sale just about everywhere.
  4. You can generally have someone else’s when you pry it from their cold, dead hand.

The iPod is a wild success today, but its introduction met with skepticism. It was derided as silly looking, too expensive, too feature-poor, and called a number of things that we can’t print here. Every revision was expected to fail, and every passing year brought claims that this was a fad like the Walkman (only 100 million Walkmans sold in the first 20 years). In the early years of the iPod, no article was complete without a quote from a competitor claiming they would best Apple with more featureful offerings. Meanwhile:

That last item bears consideration:

Many people consider the success of the iTunes store as key to the iPod’s success, since music industry lobbied congress to make it illegal to use iTunes music on any non-iPod portable MP3 player. It may make it easier for Apple to retain iPod users in the future, but I know only one person who purchased an iPod and then went on to purchase a non-iPod player. He claims his next unit may be an iPod again. The iPod market is still in wild growth mode, and Apple isn’t worrying about retaining the early adopters – it’s worrying about getting units as possible out the door as fast as possible.

So what has made the iPod successful? I can think of a number of factors. Whether these were intentional or accidental, all of these contributed to the success of the product:

Which brings us to today: the iPod is well entrenched, the iTunes store is starting to worry Target and Walmart (who sell iPods after famously failing to negotiate lower iPod prices with Steve Jobs), Apple just launched movie downloads, and it costs less to buy the two TV shows I ever watch from iTunes than it costs to get cable TV.

What’s on the horizon? Steve Jobs claims this year “is likely to be one of the most exciting new product years in Apple’s history”. Apple has already pre- announced the iTV iTunes/TV bridge-box. The rumor mill predicts an iPhone iPod-telephone combination. MacOSRumors predicts that they will be working on an article about exciting developments in writing new articles. And Microsoft is launching the Zune – a new portable media device dubbed by some as an “iPod killer” – by going after the capabilities the iPod doesn’t have. Some people think it’s already a flop. Others think it’s the only thing out there that can seize the iPod’s momentum. I’d offer a guess, but there’s a funny thing about predictions: if I could predict the future I’d have written this five years ago.