Thursday, December 17, 2009

Charge Aught!!!: The iPod

apple_ipod_classic_1It’s hard to remember a time when every portable music player didn’t have a little apple emblazoned on it somewhere (and, as we all know, everything with an apple on it belongs to Apple), but that’s the way it was once. Sony’s Walkman line of portable cassette tape players first cropped up at the tail end of the 1970s, and continued their dominance well into the CD-era.

But in the late 90s and early 2000s, a shift occurred in the way people were obtaining and listening to music – instead of going to a store and buying a CD, people could now fire up their Napsters and KaZaAs and LimeWires to download song files from the Internet for free, and as connection speeds and hard drive capacities ramped up the practice became more and more common.

This practice began eroding traditional record sales, to the point that the labels (and other, more legitimate Internet companies) sat up and took notice – the CD now hangs by a thread, caught between Amazon MP3 and the iTunes store on one side of the law and BitTorrent on the other.

This piece isn’t really about the medium shift or the Physical Media vs. Invisible Data debate, but rather about the devices people use to listen to these audio files. This is about the meteoric rise of the iPod, the way it changed how we listen to music, and how it changed our expectations for portable media devices.

Apple was in sad shape at the beginning of the decade, with its standings in the personal computer market largely obliterated by Microsoft Windows – the company’s biggest successes were years behind it or years in front. Its fortunes would turn when it decided to throw its hat into the digital music player ring – Apple hypothesized that they could do well if they could make a music player that was both small and intuitive in its user interface. Hence, the iPod.

In the Beginning

ipodThe first-generation iPod was released in 2001, a $400 5GB gadget compatible only with Macs. If that sounds outlandish now, think of it like Amazon’s Kindle – basically a pricey “proof of concept” device for early adopters only. The iPod won people over with its smaller size (courtesy a 1.8” hard drive, smaller than the then-typical 2.5” inch hard drives used in such players) and click wheel.

With the second generation of the device in 2002, Apple deigned to grace the other 97% of computer users on the planet with their new music player – that is to say, they made it compatible with Windows. Other improvements and milestones for the original iPod (now dubbed iPod Classic) came as the decade progressed – a color screen in 2004, video playback capabilities in 2005, and ever-increasing hard drive capacities made the device more desirable.

The original iPod changed things in a lot of ways, first and foremost with its capacity. With cassette or CD players, what you could listen to was what you brought with you in the car on your commute or what you stuck in the player before your morning jog. With a 20 GB iPod in your pocket (to say nothing of the modern-day 160 GB capacity), suddenly carrying the entirety of your music library with you was no big deal. Shelves of LPs and CDs could suddenly fit in your pocket. Something was lost in translation, as Jordan wrote last week, in the transition from physical to digital product, but the market had spoken and the market wanted convenience.

Mass Appeal

ipod_nano_1gb_schwarz Let me take a couple of steps backward before going forward – you don’t take the world by storm with a $400 product. $400 is well above the magical $200 consumer electronics price point, and well well above the $50 or $100 impulse buy. In 2004 Apple made a move to alleviate this with the $249 iPod Mini, an even smaller version of the original iPod. Storage capacities were lower, but the smaller physical size and lower price made consumers happy – Apple followed up its success with the original Mini with a refreshed $199 Mini in 2005, and replaced that with the first of the iPod Nano models at the end of that year.

The Nano (and the smaller, screen-less, even less-expensive iPod Shuffle, also released in 2005) signaled a shift toward flash memory instead of traditional magnetic hard drives, which made the devices even smaller and even cheaper to manufacture – Apple’s profit margin on some iPod models approaches 50% (which is criminal, by the way, but again, the market has spoken).

What they also did was slaughter and then shut out the competition. iPods could now be had for well less than $100, and Apple managed to give consumers enough choice without giving them too few or too many – too few choices, and you lose ground to niche products; too many choices and you confuse and alienate your potential customers. Apple kept its product lines clearly separated – iPods Classic, Nano, and Shuffle – and typically offered a high-end and low-end option for each model, a practice it pioneered with its computers, and something that continues to the present day.

And so, Apple conquered the digital media player market from top to bottom. Then they realized that they had picked all the low-hanging fruit, and they’d better think of something fast. The consumer electronics market moves quickly, and waits for no one.

When I Think About You I Touch My iPod

ipod-touch The iPhone is probably a post unto itself, but in a nutshell: it and the iPod Touch are perhaps the most significant entries in the entire iPod line, even though they came well after Apple’s dominance in the market was secure. This is because, even more emphatically than the video-capable iPods Nano and Classic, they’re not just music players anymore.

Yes, of course they still play music, and video too. But they also serve as e-mail checkers, and GPS units, and near-fully-functional Web browsers and social networking tools and portable game machines and alarm clocks and encyclopedias and e-readers and dictaphones and a thousand other things besides. If I were going on a trip, I’d hate to go without my trusty laptop, but with my iPhone in tow I could almost do it without losing functionality. Almost. And to be taken seriously in the smartphone and media player market now, newcomers have to replicate that same level of functionality.

Future iPods don’t just want to play your music – they want to be your computer. Ever wonder why Apple is the only major computer manufacturer without a dog in the netbook fight? It’s because they want to sell you an iPod Touch, not a cheap laptop. The iPod line looks to change the face of personal computing just as surely as did the Apple II did in the late 70s – if that statement is a little hyperbolic, it’s definitely not untrue.

The iPod is one of the definitive things about this decade – it both followed and set emerging trends in the music industry, it changed the way we see and listen to our favorite songs, it changed the way we looked at portable electronics, and it did it all in style. The iPod’s story begins in the aughts, but I’ll be very surprised if it’s not just as influential in the ‘10s.