Five reasons the iPod succeeded

When the iPod was announced, few people outside the walls of Apple saw a product that would dominate the the portable music player market. Yet, rivals have come and gone, and the ones that remain appear content to fight over the small slice of the market Apple doesn’t own.

There is one single, overarching reason that the iPod has enjoyed the success that it has: Apple had a plan, followed through on it, and didn’t deviate from it over time. It made a simple product that to this day performs the same task that it did on the day it was announced. It might do other things today, but those are secondary. The iPod was all about the music.

But digging a bit deeper, here are five interlinked factors that helped create the iPod phenomenon, one for each year of the music player’s existence.

1. Total integration

Before Apple unleashed the iPod, no company really did a good job of integrating the player, the computer, and the software that connected the two. Companies such as Rio and Creative would ship someone else’s music software in the box with their player, or sometimes they would include their own home-grown software. Whatever you got played music on your Mac or PC just fine—getting that music from the computer to the audio player was no slam dunk.

Transferring music to a portable player in those pre-iPod days wasn’t a horrible process. But it took the iPod’s arrival to let us know just how bad things were. With the iPod, you could stick a CD into your Mac, and, 10 minutes later, it’d be on the device in your pocket—that was integration on a whole new level. And being able to automatically sync your music library by just hooking up the iPod? That was radical.

That integration was dependent upon FireWire, the conduit that moved the music from your Mac to your iPod. Using FireWire was a no-brainer for Apple, since every Mac shipped with one, but it still was a groundbreaking decision. In 2001, nearly every music player on the market used USB 1.1 to transfer your songs from your computer to your player. Talk about frustration. Moving an album, let alone four or five, was an exercise akin to watching glaciers move. You transferred music to your player before you went to bed at night, so your music would be ready to go with you on the morning commute. The iPod’s FireWire interface made that process obsolete.

But Apple didn’t get all hung up on FireWire—something the company definitely would have done a decade earlier. When the majority of shipping Macs and PCs featured speedy USB 2.0 ports as standard equipment, Apple brought the iPod right along with the trend. FireWire still had a place, but Apple smartly chose to use the technology with a wider adoption.

My colleague Dan Frakes says it best: “No other player made it so easy to get music (via CDs, online services, or, let’s face it, file sharing), and then get that music organized and onto your player. Even today, five years later, the iTunes-iPod integration remains the gold standard; everything else is still a distant second.”

2. The interface

Apple designed a product that was drop-dead simple to use, even if it sounds decidedly deficient when you lay it out on paper. A click wheel, five buttons, and a sparse hierarchical menu system to navigate your music library? Nonsense! Where are the volume buttons? What about the backlight? How do I create presets? And what about a power button? It’s nuts—I need buttons!

And yet, at the announcement, my most vivid memory is of that first minute with a fully loaded iPod. The elegance and simplicity of the device was stunning. It was so easy to get to a singer, a song, an album, a playlist. The way that the volume control worked was brilliant, as was the way you turned it on and off. Nothing got in the way of the music, because it was all about the music.

Apple thought about the way that most of us listen to music and squeezed it down to its essence. The company also used admirable restraint to keep from loading up the iPod with features. I might wish that my iPod let me do more things with my music—delete songs and playlists, reorder playlists, get to different menus quicker, and so forth. And, I really want features like satellite radio support so I can listen to Bob Dylan’s XM Radio show, but the iPod does the “play music” thing so well that I still can’t imagine using anything else.

3. Windows support

While it’s easy for Mac users to discount Windows, for the iPod to succeed it was crucial that Apple make the device available for PCs (even if Steve Jobs was oh-so-coy about that possibility during the launch five years ago). Not only did it have to run on a PC, that iPod/iTunes combination had to be as easy to use as it was on the Mac. The fact that Apple did it so quickly—iPods for Windows arrived less than a year after the iPod’s debut—showed that Apple was committed to the iPod as a platform. That’s what really opened the iPod up beyond its initial market of Mac users. If you look at the curve of iPod sales, the first big spike happened after Apple made the iPod Windows-compatible.

4. The iTunes Store

Making the iPod Windows-compatible set the stage for the thing that really kicked the iPod into the stratosphere: the iTunes Music Store. And, like the integration of the iPod with the computer, the integration of that ecosystem with an easy place to fill the gaping maw of 30GB of available storage was nothing short of genius. (As the 14 pages of my Music Store purchase history tells me again and again.)

I was a music fiend in the ’70s and early ’80s. I had a ton of records at one point, but after the industry switch to CDs, my buying habits changed. I didn’t spend as much on music for a number of reasons. But the cost of CDs was a big part of it, as was the reality that I would be replacing many of my old vinyl recordings with fancy (but not always better) digital sound.

Apple knew what many of us had been like: rummaging through record bins, looking for music that didn’t cost a lot and listening to the new stuff on the record store’s turntable. With the iTunes store, Apple brought that record store into my living room, and took my credit card with it. The capability to browse the store, bouncing from song to song, artist to artist, and being able to buy one song or a whole album, quickly, easily and cheaply, was an analogue to those old days—if not a vast improvement over them.

5. FairPlay

Including Apple’s Digital Rights Management technology as a reason for the iPod’s success is sure to be a controversial factor, but it can’t be discounted. If Apple was going to sell music from the major record labels, the company had to provide a mechanism to prevent buyers from sharing music purchases. There was no way a major label was going to let unprotected MP3 files out of its vault and onto the Internet without some sort of digital rights management system. FairPlay was Apple’s answer.

For DRM, FairPlay is fairly innocuous, and it’s generous as well, with its five-computer limit. And, if you’re determined to be a music pirate, burn a CD and pass your music along. You can't do that with any other system without going through some major hoops. Do you remember Sony’s little rootkit exploit? Tell me again that FairPlay is evil.

You can paint FairPlay out to be draconian, but the Store’s sales don’t lie—by and large, people are willing to put up with it. Do I like it? Not at all, but the protection really only offends my sensibilities when I run into the fact that I can’t play those damn .m4p files on my SqueezeBox. And, if you want unprotected MP3s, there’s always eMusic, to which my credit card can attest is a nice complement to the iTunes Store. And those files play on the iPod. See? In the end, it’s still all about the music.

[ Rick LePage, formerly president of Macworld is now an editor-at-large, covering the creative professional beat. ]

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