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The Complete History of the iPod

On October 23rd 2001 Steve Jobs hosted an event on Apple’s Infinite Loop campus.

By today’s standards, the event was remarkably low-key. Jobs presented to a small audience in nondescript room that looks like your average college auditorium. Yet, 6 minutes and 35 seconds into the presentation a new product name flashed on the screen behind Jobs.

It read: “iPod.”

From the moment on the future of Apple — and technology — was forever changed. Let’s dive into the complete history of the iPod to see how Apple managed to revolutionize the music industry.

The Creation of the iPod

In the decade before the iPod, Apple had seen the failure of the Newton, a bet on portable computing.

The product took years of development and was delayed several times. When it was finally released, its software (especially its handwriting recognition) was error-prone and given lukewarm reviews.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple as interim CEO, one of his first major decisions was to end development of the Newton.

Yet, just two years after Apple exited PDAs, a new opportunity emerged. In the late 1990s digital music exploded. MP3s fueled this rise as they significantly reduced the file size of music. Rather than a 4 GB hard drive being able to store 6 albums at their file size from compact discs, it could now house 1,000 MP3s.

At the time — thanks to software like Napster — piracy was rampant. In addition, most MP3 players were bulky, expensive, had poor users interfaces (UIs), and non-intuitive software.

Tony Fadell, a former executive at Phillips, was trying to create a software that would (legally) sell music and integrate with an MP3 player. He pitched the service to companies like Real Networks, which in late 1999 had soared to a market capitalization of more than $10 billion as investors bet on the growth of digital music.

After repeated rejections, Fadell was surprised to find Apple was very interested in his concept. He was hired in early 2001 by Jon Rubenstein (who also deserves immense credit for the creation of the iPod) and given a team of 30 employees to develop a portable music player.

Fadell’s big break came when he approached a company named PortalPlayer, which had reference designs for an advanced MP3 players and music software that was largely complete. PortalPlayer began working exclusively with Apple.

The First iPod is Released

Ben Knauss, who was senior manager at PortalPlayer, described the company’s reference designs as “80% complete” when the company began working with Apple.

With a short schedule until a planned release in late 2001, Fadell and his team at Apple began refining PortalPlayer’s hardware and software. Gone were the typical excess of buttons littered MP3 players in the era, and in their place was a scroll wheel that became the defining feature of the iPod.

After an initial prototypes were completed, Steve Jobs became increasingly interested in the project. Knauss described him as spending “100% of [his] time” on the project with daily software and design feedback.

Another major breakthrough came when Jobs went to Japan to give the keynote speech at the Tokyo Macworld conference. Apple employee Jon Rubenstein was meeting with Toshiba who told him they had a new hard drive that was the size of a silver dollar and could hold five gigabytes (~1,000 songs) of data.

This product solved one of the most difficult technological challenges to building an MP3 player and Jobs authorized Apple to sign up as the exclusive buyer of these new hard drives.

In total, it took Apple only about 8 months from the hiring of Tony Fadell to lead the iPod project to Steve Jobs revealing the product on October 23, 2001.

The First iPod: Its Specifications

  • Main article: The first iPod

The first-generation iPod went on sale on November 10, 2001, and focused its tagline on “1,000 songs in your pocket.” Its features included:

  • 5 GB hard drive from Toshiba
  • Scroll wheel for its user interface
  • Lithium polymer battery capable of producing 10 hours of battery life
  • Connection to iTunes software
  • A 2″ 160X128 pixel screen.
  • $399 price tag

In 2002, Apple sold more than 400,000 iPods and the product contributed 2% of company sales. By 2004, iPod sales had increased to 4.4 million units and were contributing 15% of the company’s revenue.

iPod Second to Fourth Generation: Touch Wheels and Photos

  • Main article: iPod Classic

In July 2002 Apple released a 2nd generation iPod that made design changes, doubled storage from 5 to 10 gigabytes, and added Windows support.

Come April 2003, Apple made a major upgrade to the iPod with the third generation iPod model. It redesigned the appearance of the iPod, adding a new touch wheel that removed all mechanical buttons. In addition, the third-generation was thinner and introduced a $299 starting price that further pushed iPods into the mainstream.

In July 2004 Apple introduced the fourth generation iPod, which further refined controls. The ‘touch wheel’ from the prior generation became a ‘click wheel.’ The entry-level iPod now cost $299 for 20GB of storage. In addition, the model added 50% more battery (12 hours) compared to the third generation iPod.

In October of 2004 Apple added a first for the iPod, a color screen. The iPod Photo came with a 220X176 pixel screen that displayed colors. This model was introduced between generations, but was a preview of where the iPod lineup would be headed in future years.

iPod Mini, Nano, Shuffle

  • Main article: iPod Mini
  • iPod Nano
  • iPod Shuffle

Looking to expand the reach of the iPod, in 2004 Apple began creating additional product lines.

In January 2004, the company introduced the iPod Mini. The device came with a smaller screen and just 4GB of storage. However, it continued to push down the the starting price points for iPods. The first Mini retailed for $249. In addition it came in five colors (silver, gold, pink, blue or green) and weighed just 3.6 ounces.

In 2005 Apple would go even smaller releasing the iPod Nano. The Nano weighed just 1.5 ounces, and Apple proudly noted was “thinner than a standard #2 pencil.” Once again, the Nano allowed Apple to continue lowering iPod price points, with a 2GB model that still carried a color screen retailing for $199.

Apple also released the iPod Shuffle in 2005. The iPod Shuffle was notable for three important reasons:

  • It had no screen on it
  • It used flash memory instead of a hard disk drive
  • It broke the $100 barrier. The 512MB model retailed for just $99.

Because of all the new models at varying price points, Apple saw explosive iPod sales growth in 2005. That year the company sold 22.5 million iPods, a total that was 411% higher than the prior year.

The Introduction of the iPod Touch and Decline of iPod Sales

  • Main article: iPod Touch

In 2005 Apple would add video to its fifth generation iPod. In 2007, the sixth generation iPod would be renamed “iPod Classic.” Apple continued selling the iPod Classic until September 2014, when the lineup was cancelled.

Replacing the iPod Classic as the “flagship” model was the iPod Touch. The Touch was first introduced in September 2007 and similar in appearance to an iPhone, but without a cellular connection.

The Touch added web browsing, and with its second generation model, access to the App Store. Throughout the years iPod Touch models would be updated to include processors and other internal components that were similar to the iPhone. After updating the Touch every year between 2007 and 2010 (generations 1 to 4), Apple waited until 2012 to update the 5th generation Touch.

In 2015, it released a 6th generation Touch, and last upgraded. the lineup in 2019.

After four generations the iPod Shuffle was discontinued in 2017 after last being updated in 2010. The iPod Nano had seven generations of products and was last updated in 2012. Like the Shuffle, it was discontinued in 2017.

The sales of iPods peaked in 2008, you can see a listing of iPod unit sales throughout the years below.

  • 2002: .4M
  • 2003: .9M
  • 2004: 4.4M
  • 2005: 22.5M
  • 2006: 39.4M
  • 2007: 51.6M
  • 2008: 54.8M
  • 2009: 54.1M
  • 2010: 50.3M
  • 2011: 42.6M
  • 2012: 35.2M
  • 2013: 26.4M
  • 2014: 14.4M

After 2014, Apple stopped reporting the sales of iPods as they constituted less than 1% of the company’s sales total.

While iPods were an iconic product that defined the pre-smartphone era, ultimately the rise of the iPhone made them unnecessary. Today, the only iPod model that hasn’t been discontinued is the iPod Touch. If Apple follows past patterns, it would next see an update in 2023.

Complete Timeline of iPod History

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