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  • The Music in Your Pocket Report

    October 25th, 2016

    It almost seems as if a growing number of my columns are very much about comparing the present with the past, or just remembering something I did or observed years ago and how it relates to a current event.

    So I read an article about the iPod’s 15th birthday. But this is something Apple won’t make a big deal about, even though it’s a product that, building upon its modest beginnings, literally changed the direction of the company. Only we didn’t realize it then.

    Now as a long-time audio fan, I had the pleasure of reviewing computer speaker systems and other gear over the years. Around 2000 or so, after becoming a feature writer for CNET, I wrote a few reviews for its companion site, ZDNet, mostly covering digital music players. A number of manufacturers tried to build something new loosely based on the concept of the original Sony Walkman, a way to carry music in your pocket, and listen to it with a set of headphones.

    Only those early players were bad, real bad. They didn’t have user interfaces to die for, but interfaces that died. Just downloading music to the device was awkward and slow. If the market were to succeed, someone needed to come up with a better idea — and that someone was Apple, but I’m not going to recount the legend of Tony Fadell finding a way to convince Steve Jobs to build the iPod.

    Instead. I remember Jobs delivering a modest presentation about the original iPod in 2001. The marketing push was, “1,000 songs in your pocket.” That seemed an awful lot when you consider that most music players of the time hardly managed a few dozen or a few hundred. The huge difference was a tiny 5GB hard drive. To deal with the slow transfer problem, Apple used a FireWire interface; it became USB after Apple decided to spread the joy to Windows users.

    Armed with a relatively simple, straightforward user interface, higher capacity, and faster file transfer speeds, the iPod had it all over the competition — at a price. All this joy set you back $399, and I suspect most tech journalists believed it was just a novelty, and wouldn’t go anywhere. The real action began when, in 2003, Apple delivered iTunes for Windows and launched the iTunes Music Store.

    The music store portal was the magic bullet. Stung by lost sales from music piracy sites, such as Napster, the music industry was persuaded to negotiate a deal with Apple. You could buy and download legal songs for 99 cents a track, or even a full album. At first your music was protected via DRM, which meant you could only play your music on an Apple device or iTunes for Mac or PC.

    Microsoft and other companies made their own deals with the music industry, but Apple got there first on both platforms, and nobody ever caught up. Even after music became DRM-free, Apple continued to dominate.

    Microsoft tried with the Zune music player which, if nothing else, represented the debut of the user interface formerly known as Metro. That formed the basis of Windows 8/8.1, and only in Windows 10 has Microsoft backed off a bit, though the tiles and the stick pin artwork are still there for better or worse.

    What really helped boost iPod sales was Apple’s decision to build cheaper models with flash memory. Without a hard drive, they were more reliable — I can’t tell you how many iPods I encountered over the years with bad drives. In those days, though, solid state storage was expensive and capacity was relatively low. But it became cheap enough to manage capacities similar to the original iPod at much lower prices.

    As sales soared, it was clear that Apple was onto something. Indeed, the greatest iPod ever, introduced in 2007, was only partly iPod. It was actually a miniature personal computer that could manage email and online access with a mobile OS derived from OS X, and it included a telephone. The iPhone arrived and, eventually, supplanted the larger portion of iPod sales. But the iPod is still available, with the lineup starting with the 2GB iPod shuffle at $49. As you recall, the original $399 iPod had a 5GB drive, so that means the shuffle ought to hold up to 400 songs.

    Apple continued to sell a hard drive version until 2014, when the iPod Classic was put to rest. Apple still sells iPods, with the shuffle and the nano evidently managing the volume sales. There’s also an iPod touch, with is essentially an iPhone without the phone.

    The iPod is still officially available from Apple — for now. But it’s hard to say for how much longer. Although an iPod shuffle with a wristband serves the needs of joggers, the Apple Watch does it far better to justify its much higher purchase price. Those seeking a no frills fitness band will probably consider a Fitbit anyway. But it’s hard to argue with a genuine Apple gadget for just $49, and that might, indeed, be the last iPod to be discontinued.

    Now I’ve used many iPods over the years for testing. My son has owned a few, but I never got into portable music players, although I tried. I just don’t like sticking things in my ears, and even when I record my radio shows, I just run the speakers real low.

    Still, the iPod demonstrated Apple’s potential as a consumer electronics company that, eventually, led to the iPhone, the iPad and the Apple Watch. And to Apple becoming the most powerful tech company on the planet.



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