The iPod is a funny product. It fundamentally changed Apple and yet it has been slowly and unceremoniously murdered by its successors, the iPhone and the iPad. iPod has a long and storied history, from how it came to be to the sheer number of models that the company worked on for two decades. The original iPod was the very first handheld consumer electronic that Apple made post Steve Jobs’ return to the company and it kickstarted a revolution in virtually every major industry around the world. But iPod also means something special to me. The first Apple product that was brand new and really mine was an iPod shuffle given to me for my 7th birthday.
From Town Hall to the world stage
On October 23, 2001 Steve Jobs walked out on onto the Town Hall stage at 4 Infinite Loop in Cupertino and introduced the very first iPod. There’s no question that the industry was slightly confused at Apple’s decision to make an MP3 player. After all, the company was best known for making big colorful computers not sleek white little boxes that fit in your pocket.
What the media didn’t realize at the time was that it was a natural next step for the company and Steve knew exactly what he was doing. There’s that famous story about the executive team, Jon Rubinstein in particular, discovering the small 5GB hard drive made by Toshiba. It was a clear indication that the industry was really stepping on the gas when it came to miniaturization. The iPod was the perfect kind of device for consumers to get introduced to an Apple product that goes with you everywhere. It was friendly, personal, and unlike anything anyone else had ever made.
The first few years of iPod were fairly slow. The device was expensive at $399 and only played music. At that time it was hard to justify unless you were an audiophile or loved music and had money burning a hole in your pocket. iPod really took off once it was made compatible with Windows. Apple added the ability to sync your iPod with a Windows computer with the second generation model and a year later they introduced iTunes for Windows streamlining the experience. In the blink of an eye, the iPod became a gateway drug for Windows users to get hooked on Apple products.
The company shipped several different families of iPod over its lifetime. The original white iPod, later renamed iPod Classic, had 7 different generations. Following the 4th generation iPod, the company created a new spin off line that ended up being short lived: the iPod Photo. iPod Photo was the first iPod with a colored display. Alongside iPod Photo, Apple also introduced the first U2 iPod which was refined over the years as the iPod evolved.
That same year, 2004, the company unveiled the first colorful iPod: the iPod mini. iPod mini was the first iPod to have Apple’s now signature anodized aluminum finish. It was only revised once with some new colors and a better display. It was also the first Apple product to come in gold. In 2005 the company made things… mini-er. With the iPod shuffle, Apple democratized the product line and made it insanely accessible. For just $100, anyone could get their hands on an iPod that worked with iTunes. iPod shuffle was also the company’s first wearable. It had tons of accessories like lanyards, sport cases, docks, and even special types of headphones.
In 2005, the iconic iPod nano replaced the iPod mini. It had a breakthrough ultra thin form factor and it was the iPod that made small speedy solid state storage synonymous. Throughout its life Apple experimented with the product changing its design entirely nearly every single year. The 3rd generation iPod nano gained a squat wide form factor, the 5th generation iPod nano had a video camera and a unique polished finish, the 6th generation iPod nano was really a predecessor to Apple Watch and featured a small square design with a touch display. When Apple began work on the Apple Watch, they switched the iPod nano back to the tall and skinny design and added a home button. Both iPod shuffle and iPod nano were put to rest in 2017.
The last iPod to survive is of course the iPod touch. It’s still around, languishing in the shadows of the Apple Store. It’s out of date, too small, and frankly not a good value. But iPod touch used to be star of the show. When it was introduced in 2007, it helped make the iPhone the revolution that it was. It was an iPhone without the phone and expanded the iOS user base. Early on in its life it was updated alongside the iPhone, only getting skipped over a few times before the product ultimately lost its steam. You can still buy an iPod touch from Apple in several colors for $199, but who knows how long that will last. The company has removed it from the new music page on Apple.com and you now have to actively search for the product to find it.
The iPod itself was great, but you could argue that the reason it was so successful was Apple’s now legendary marketing campaigns. The company worked with longtime collaborator Chiat/Day on the iconic silhouette ads that made the white earbuds the fashion statement that they were. The company iterated on the style many times over the years and had special artist guests like Eminem and Coldplay. They’ve revived the style a few times since then, most recently with the AirPods 3rd generation reveal video and website.
The silhouette ads weren’t the only important marketing campaign for iPod. The company’s ads evolved throughout the iPod’s life. Some of my favorite ads include: the 4th generation iPod nano’s paint dripping ad set to Chairlift’s “Bruises,” the 3rd generation iPod nano’s ad set to Feists “1234,” and the 2nd generation nano’s trippy 3D coloring ad. Like iPod nano itself, the ads were a testing ground for wild and quirky ideas.