The iPod as an iconic cultural force

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Rarely does an electronic gadget become so ubiquitous that it defines an entire market category and transcends the mantle of nerd toy to become an iconic cultural force. Apple’s iPod, introduced 10 years ago Sunday, accomplished just that.

For all the praise tech pundits like to heap on the iPod, we have to keep things in perspective. iPod’s reign on this earth has been short—powerful and influential, but short.

The classic iPod design, with its scroll wheel interface, remained relevant for only six years—from 2001 to 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone and iPod touch. As it stands today, dedicate hardware MP3 players have taken a bit role in a larger cast of software applications on multifunction devices like smartphones.

Historically speaking, the classic iPod era passed in a blink of an eye. But even in six years, Apple’s parade of tiny media devices made quite an impact, and it has continued to the present. Here are a few major ways iPod changed the world.

1. It transformed Apple

In 2001, before the iPod launched, most people knew Apple best for its line of Mac computers. By 2004, the iPod dominated Apple’s identity in the public consciousness. And for good reason; it was a breakout product that quickly began to earn more revenue for Apple than any product it had ever sold.

Before the iPod, Apple products were consigned to the Mac nerd ghetto. You’d be hard pressed to pull a random person off the street and find that they knew even what Apple was. But by 2004, the iPod had sold enough units that everyone wanted and/or used an iPod, making Apple a mainstream cultural player like never before. At that point, if you asked a person on the street what products Apple made, odds are pretty good that they’d pull an iPod out of their pocket and show you.

It’s amusing to point out that, in 2004, Apple had been making Macs for 20 years—and the iPod for only three—and that one digital music player changed the fundamental nature of a thirty year-old company almost overnight. Within a few years, Apple expanded into two other consumer electronic categories with the Apple TV and the iPhone. To reflect these changes, Apple Computer, Inc. dropped the “Computer” from its corporate name in 2007.

The iPod’s success went hand-in-hand with the iTunes Music Store, which opened in 2003 and became the United States’ largest music retailer only five years later. Apple’s domination of the music industry, along with iPod follow-ups like the iPhone and iPad, soon made Apple the second most valuable corporation in the world.

2. It shook up the music industry

The turn of the millennium saw the music industry in a flat-out panic. MP3s gained popularity around the mid-late 1990s due to small file sizes and relatively high sound quality. By 2000, users illegally traded hundreds of thousands of songs in MP3 format on Napster, a peer-to-peer music sharing service. The music industry found itself competing against an unregulated spigot of digital music files that flowed as freely as water from a tap.

Enter Apple, one of the first few companies that had the sense to try to turn the music industry’s digital liability into an asset. Illegal or not, downloadable music provided a convenience and ease-of-use that listeners craved, and Apple bet that people would pay for the privilege.

They were right. The iTunes Music Store, the only legal game in town that sold major label music for a time, quickly became a force to be reckoned with in the industry. The iTunes Store pulled so far ahead that a number of traditional, non-online music retailers filed for bankruptcy within a few years.

In the process, Apple had pulled downloadable music out of the seedy back alleys of the Internet, shined it up, and delivered it to the lap of the cultural mainstream.

The iPod not only rocked the boat for the people who distributed music, but the people who made music as well. Being a software-based retailer, Apple’s music store allowed smaller artists to sell their music with relatively low barriers to entry compared to the cost of fabricating and distributing a plastic disc. As a result, the number of artists—and thus, consumer choice—on the Internet exploded, marginalizing the earning power of major musical acts. The iPod effectively took a big slice of bigwig revenues and distributed it among the indie label masses.

3. It provided the soundtrack for our lives

The iPod, as a digital companion, has profoundly impacted millions of people in a very personal way. Its portability, by virtue of its small size and long battery life, meant that people took it with them wherever they went.

Our iPods could always be playing—on the bus, on the street, when working out, or while drifting to sleep—focusing our lives through a new musical lens. With the iPod guiding us through life experiences good and bad, each one of us becomes a star in our own private movie.

And private it is, encasing us in a secret musical bubble that tends to shut out others in public spaces, much to the chagrin of conservative cultural purists and gregarious subway-goers everywhere.

Within this bubble, many have enjoyed the primacy of their own music verses that would be imposed onto them by others. (Elevator music be damned.) The iPod’s large capacity meant people could effectively program their own private radio stations with days’ worth of content, which Apple’s device could deliver in a novel play order called “shuffle.”

That brings us to another point about listening habits inspired by the iPod: the diminishing form of the music album. Not only does the iPod have the potential to completely negate whatever playing order each album’s creators intended, but its accompanying music store, which sells songs à la carte, delights in breaking up albums in ways never before seen.

In the end, iPod

For the past 10 years, the iPod has been a friend to music lovers, a bane to industry tradition, and a cultural catalyst. Its time as a standalone media player (without the bells and whistles apps provide) may have come and gone, but its influence will last forever; it’s entwined in our cultural DNA. The digital media revolution first promised—and delivered—by the iPod 10 years ago lives on in a new generation of world-changing Apple products. In that way, the iPod’s story will continue for years to come.

[Benj Edwards is a freelance writer who specializes in computer and video game history. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to vintage technology.]

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