Farewell iPod: The day the music smiled

Apple’s pocket-sized device wasn’t just an outlier. It was a personification of its founder Steve Jobs and an ode to disruption

By Vinay Kamat

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Published: Thu 19 May 2022, 11:36 PM

Last updated: Fri 20 May 2022, 9:49 PM

Technology died today. Long live beauty. That would have been an apt epitaph for a digital companion that lived in our midst for 20 years and passed away on May 10. In many ways, it was the chronicle of a death foretold. Technology was shifting, streaming was killing, and younger bro iPhone was becoming a brainier all-purpose pocket rocket.

Take a pause.

The first iPod could well have been Harry Potter’s wand. The brand and its manifestations — Mini, Nano, Shuffle, Touch — not only transformed Apple from a niche computer maker to a gadget overlord, they created the modern wearables business. When it was launched with Steve Jobsian fanfare in 2001, the iPod created a new religion. It became the iconic pendant of tech-couture, the wow-intersection between fashion and technology. The iPod was more than the iPod. It was the ultimate personification of its creator. It was Apple’s most influential evangelist.

Apple unveiled the first iPod on October 23, 2001
Apple unveiled the first iPod on October 23, 2001

In the years that followed the birth of the iPod, it was hip to flaunt the icon. Levi Strauss put built-in headphones, docking cradle and joystick in its iPod jeans. Luxury shifted gears when BMW integrated the iPod into its music ecosystem. Genre-defining iPod ads hit the senses, with splashing colours and dancing silhouettes.

The product and its earbuds were conspicuously white. Cool became the mantra of the geek universe. The marketing campaign echoed the original 1984 Mackintosh ad produced by Ridley Scott, which heralded the dawn of a new order. Although sense and simplicity dominated the ad campaigns, the message was clear: design is the new normal.

Apple founder Steve Jobs’ seminal 2001 presentation, launching the iPod, tells us what made the MP3 player amazingly great. Sheer passion. “We love music…and it’s always good to do something you love…More importantly, music’s part of everyone’s life — everyone. Music’s been around forever. It will always be around. This is not a speculative market. And because it’s a part of every one’s life, it’s a very large target market all around the world. It knows no boundaries. But interestingly enough, in this whole new digital music revolution, there’s no market leader.” iPod’s purpose was cast in stone by Jobs on that day.

And while he highlighted its long battery life, download speed, functionality, price and interface, he provided the ultimate headline for the iPod: “Thousand songs in your pocket.” For the buyer, it was clearly a thousand reasons to buy. Jobs’ baby was the showpiece of the iTunes ecosystem and the north star of the Apple brand universe. Its design, purpose and ambition influenced Apple’s next big product: the iPhone. It influenced intuitive design more than any other product in Apple’s stable. It amplified wow.

iPhone (first generation) was officially announced on January 9, 2007
iPhone (first generation) was officially announced on January 9, 2007

To understand the iPod is to understand the mind of Jobs. His biographer Walter Isaacson says Job’s passion for simplicity in design was triggered when he was practising Buddhism. “I have always found Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular, to be aesthetically sublime. The most sublime thing I’ve ever seen are the gardens around Kyoto…The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.”

Has the iPod passed the Zen test? It’s not just a tech achievement or a musical crescendo. It’s an aesthetic triumph. The iPod is often compared to another great product that disrupted an industry: Sony’s Walkman. The man behind the company, Akio Morita, also believed in design, user experience and product innovation. But it’s his ability to outguess the market (he did not fully believe in market research) that gave gadgetry a new life and a bold new generation of tech entrepreneurs.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Johny K. Johansson and Ikujiro Nonaka point at Sony’s intuitive approach. “When Sony researched the market for a lightweight portable cassette player, results showed that consumers wouldn’t buy a tape recorder that didn’t record. Company chairman Akio Morita decided to introduce the Walkman anyway, and the rest is history.”

Design-obsessed Jobs was no different: He told Businessweek in 1998: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Jobs, who was clearly influenced by Sony’s ability to innovate, design and market, took Apple into the next generation with a new ethic: minimalism. The designer became the non-designer. Zen became cool.

The death of the iPod deserves a celebration. Even in a disruptive world, the product has lived a fuller life. It has had a multiplier effect on innovation. It still does. The iPod hasn’t passed. It has only departed in a Zen-like manner.


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