The iPod wasn’t just an outlier. He was a personification of Apple founder Steve Jobs and an ode to disruption
Technology is dead today. Long live beauty. It would have been a fitting epitaph for a digital companion who lived among us for 20 years and passed away on May 10. In many ways, it was the chronicle of a foretold death. Technology was evolving, streaming was killing, and the younger iPhone sibling was becoming a smarter all-purpose pocket rocket.
Take a break.
The first iPod might well have been Harry Potter’s wand. The brand and its manifestations – Mini, Nano, Shuffle, Touch – not only transformed Apple from a niche computer maker to a gadget overlord, they created the modern apparel company. When launched with fanfare by Steve Jobs in 2001, the iPod created a new religion. It has become the iconic tech-couture pendant, the wow intersection between fashion and technology. The iPod was more than the iPod. It was the ultimate personification of its creator. He was Apple’s most influential evangelist.
In the years following the birth of the iPod, it was fashionable to display the icon. Levi Strauss stuffed built-in headphones, a docking station and a joystick into his iPod jeans. Luxury shifted gears when BMW integrated the iPod into its music ecosystem. The genre-defining iPod commercials hit the senses, with vibrant colors and dancing silhouettes. The product and its headphones were visibly white. Cool has become the mantra of the geek universe. The marketing campaign echoed the original 1984 Mackintosh advertisement produced by Ridley Scott, which heralded the dawn of a new order. Although meaning and simplicity dominated the advertising campaigns, the message was clear: design is the new normal.
Apple founder Steve Jobs’ keynote presentation at the 2001 launch of the iPod tells us what made the MP3 player incredibly great. Pure passion. “We love music… and it’s always good to do something you love… More importantly, music is part of everyone’s life — everyone. Music has always existed. He will always be there. It is not a speculative market. And because it’s part of everyone’s life, it’s a very big target market all over the world. It knows no borders. But curiously, in this brand new digital music revolution, there is no market leader. The iPod goal was carved in stone by Jobs that day.
And while he highlighted its long battery life, download speed, features, price, and interface, he provided the ultimate title for the iPod: “A Thousand Songs in Your Pocket.” For the buyer, it was clearly a thousand reasons to buy. Jobs’ baby was the centerpiece of the iTunes ecosystem and the north star of the Apple brand universe. Its design, purpose and ambition influenced Apple’s next big product: the iPhone. It influenced intuitive design more than any other product in the Apple stable. It amplified wow.
To understand the iPod is to understand the spirit of Jobs. His biographer Walter Isaacson says Job’s passion for simplicity in design was sparked when he practiced Buddhism. “I have always found Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular, aesthetically sublime. The most sublime thing I have ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto… The way we run the business, product design, advertising, it all boils down to this: keep it simple. Really simple.
Did the iPod pass the Zen test? It’s not just a technical feat or a musical crescendo. It is an aesthetic triumph. The iPod is often compared to another great product that turned an industry upside down: Sony’s Walkman. The man behind the company, Akio Morita, also believed in design, user experience and product innovation. But it was his ability to guess the market (he didn’t entirely believe in market research) that gave gadgets new life and a bold new generation of tech entrepreneurs.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Johny K. Johansson and Ikujiro Nonaka highlight Sony’s intuitive approach. “When Sony researched the market for a lightweight portable cassette player, the results showed that consumers would not buy a tape recorder that does not record. Company president Akio Morita decided to introduce the Walkman anyway, and the rest is history.
Design-obsessed Jobs was no different: He told Businessweek in 1998, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. Often people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Jobs, who was clearly influenced by Sony’s ability to innovate, design and market, propelled Apple into the next generation with a new ethos: minimalism. The designer has become the non-designer. Zen has become cool.
The death of the iPod deserves a celebration. Even in a disruptive world, the product has lived a fuller life. It had a multiplier effect on innovation. It’s always like that. The iPod did not pass. He just left in a zen way.
A tribute to Apple’s handheld device that redefined the way music is discovered, heard and shared by consumers
October 23, 2001: Apple launches the iPod, a pocket music device
2003: Apple launches the iTunes Music Store, which offers an innovative combination of software and hardware for listening to music
2001-19: Apple releases several iPod models such as the Classic, Mini, Nano, Shuffle and Touch
2009: In the first quarter of 2009, iPod revenues represented nearly 29% of Apple’s revenues
2007: Apple launches the very first iPhone and iPod Touch the same year
2014: iPod’s share is reduced to 1% of Apple’s revenue and generates $410 million in revenue
2015: Apple stops reporting revenue from declining iPod sales and includes it in the apparel, home and accessories segment, which is dominated by Apple Watch
Initially, the iPod could store 1,000 songs; later 90 million songs were available on Apple’s streaming service
May 10, 2022: Apple recalls the time of the seventh generation iPod Touch, first released in May 2019; sales will continue while supplies last
2009-2020: iPhone’s share of total Apple revenue increases from 25% to 40% and reaches 70% in the meantime