iPod: The device that changed everything

Eight years ago Apple introduced its first iPod. The world has never been the same

Amid all the hubbub last week surrounding Windows 7 -- not to mention Burger King's 7-layer Windows Whopper -- I totally missed one of the key anniversaries in tech history.

As Macworld's Scott McNulty notes, the iPod quietly turned 8 last Friday. My first reaction: Only 8? Hasn't it been with us forever?

But no. On Oct. 23, 2001, Steve Jobs introduced Apple's first portable music player. It only worked with Macs. There was no online store where you could download music, so you had to rip all your songs from CDs. It was chunky, held 5GB of music, and cost $400.

Yet it was still the coolest device ever introduced up to that point -- what Macworld editor Jason Snell described as "the first iconic product of the 21st century." Nothing has been the same since.

Certainly not Apple. The iPod transformed Apple from the company that made computers for guys with ponytails into The Company That Knows What Consumers Want. Apple went from being the competitor Microsoft could crush if it really tried into the organization Microsoft wishes it was.

In 2001 Apple took in around $5.4 billion, nearly all of it from sales of Macs. It posted a loss of $25 million. Last year, Apple raked in $36.5 billion (and nearly $6 billion in profits) split among iPods and iPhones, Macs, and digital content.

No iPod? No iTunes, no iPhone, no App Store and -- I believe -- no Apple.

What would the world look like then? Imagine listening to music on your Creative Labs Windows Music Player 7.0 and paying $2.99 a download to the Sony-Warner-Universal Connect Music Store. The industry would still be talking about getting TV shows on a portable player, once they finally hammered out all the DRM and licensing issues. That smartphone in your pocket would be either a BlackBerry or -- Lord help us -- a WinMo phone. It would not be pretty.

Ironically, the iPod as we knew it then is essentially dead. Devices that simply play music and videos are like toasters or clock radios. From here on out, the gadgets we carry will all run apps, play games, and let us surf or work from wherever we are -- whether they're phones or not. You can thank Apple for that, too.

Today people turn to Apple, breathlessly waiting for what's coming next. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller makes an offhand reference to an "impending Apple slate" in a speech to his staff, and that's all it takes to get the blogosphere rolling on yet another series of Apple Tablet rumors.

You could argue the genesis of the Apple Mystique started with the Newton, or even the original Mac, but I'd disagree. The Newton was a beloved but deeply flawed product that failed in the marketplace. The Mac was barely clinging to the 3 percent of the market that wore ponytails and worked in graphic design. It was the iPod that made it all happen.

Happy 8th birthday, little pod. Enjoy your cake.

What would the world look like if Apple had withered and died on the vine? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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This story, "iPod: The device that changed everything," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest mobile developments at InfoWorld.com.

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