The Apple iPod has become a major cultural icon in a matter of a few years since its introduction in 2001. There were other digital music players around at the time but it was one of the first to use a hard disk to store songs instead of flash memory1. Its popularity stemmed not from any particularly groundbreaking technology but its emphasis on ease of use and downright coolness. However, it has come under a fair amount of criticism for being fragile and too popular for its own good.
The name 'iPod' came from Vinnie Chieco, who was one of the people employed by Apple to lay down the product's marketing strategy. Apparently, the prototype reminded him of a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey: 'Open the pod bay door, Hal!' referring to the white EVA Pods of the Discovery One spaceship. Apple had previously registered the name 'iPod' for Internet kiosks2, but that plan had never taken off.
The iPod3 began as an integrated business idea. Digital music players had been around for a while, but a chap named Tony Fadell wanted to combine a unique design with a music sale service and build a company from there. He had been working for the electronics company Phillips but now he left and tried to find another company to fund his idea. Only Apple was interested.
Tony had assumed Apple would not be enthusiastic about funding a completely new design from scratch, and so he went to a company called PortalPlayer. The PortalPlayer prototype was pretty basic, only supporting playlists smaller than ten songs, having no equaliser settings, and with only three hours of battery life. So most of the early development was spent refining the design, with a surprising amount of input from Apple boss Steve Jobs. He regularly attended meetings discussing the new product. He made sure only a select few from Tony Fadell's team and PortalPlayer were allowed to see the complete iPod, in order to keep it secret from his competitors.
On 9 January, 2001, Apple released its iTunes music software, which would be key to the iPod's success. It had three main features: conversion of audio CDs into compressed digital audio files, organisation of digital music collections5, and Internet radio playback. At this early stage it only worked with Apple's own Macintosh computers.
Then, on 23 October, 2001 the iPod was announced. The first models were shipped three weeks after. It was revolutionary in one key aspect: it was specifically designed to be easy to use when the player contained many thousands of songs. Other digital music players used controls very similar to those on a Walkman, with simple skip buttons to move back and forth between songs. Instead, it used a 'scroll wheel', which the user could spin to scroll through menus and lists of songs. It had five buttons:
- Menu - to move backwards (or up one) in the menu structure6,
- 'Back' and 'Forwards' skip buttons,
- A play/pause button - when held down this is also the off switch,
- and a 'Select' button in the centre7, for selecting songs to play or other menu items.
- There was also a 'hold switch', which, when turned on, stopped the iPod from responding to any button presses.
Some contended the iPod's price tag of $399 (around £204) was too high, but this did not hurt sales. What did was the iPod's lack of Windows compatibility.
When the iPod was updated in July, 2002 Apple made it compatible with Windows using MusicMatch software. One other criticism of the first-generation iPod was that the mechanical scroll wheel could be easy to break. So a static, touch-sensitive, 'touch wheel' was devised. In line with developments in minimising the size of hard disks, they also offered models with 10 or 20GB capacity (the original offered 5GB to start off with, and 10GB later).
Before the 2002 Christmas shopping season, Apple started engraving the backs of iPods. Bands and companies then allowed Apple to use their logos or names on them.
The third generation iPod did away with mechanical buttons altogether, making them all touch-sensitive. The select button retained its position at the centre of the touch wheel, while the other four buttons were moved to between the wheel and the screen. The really significant change was when the iTunes Music Store was introduced in summer 2003. The Music Store was a legal way to download music from the Internet, integrated into iTunes. Apple had ended its partnership with MusicMatch, but soon after the announcement of the Music Store, iTunes was made available in a Windows version as well, so everyone was happy.
It was around now that the first battery complaints started arriving. The rechargeable batteries iPods used had a set lifespan, and would not hold their charge properly after a certain number of charges. After various legal shenanigans Apple agreed to replace failed batteries, even out of warranty, for a fee.
Shrinking the iPod
Technology was advancing at an astonishing rate, and in 2003 Toshiba announced that it had developed a hard drive about half the size of one used in the current iPod. In early 2004 Apple boss Steve Jobs made a series of iPod-related announcements in his annual Macworld Expo keynote address. Right at the end he unexpectedly announced the iPod Mini.
Hitachi had managed to equal Toshiba in the hard drive-shrinking arena, and it was a Hitachi 4GB disk that the Mini used. It was revolutionary, being not much bigger than the less capacious flash memory MP3 players. It was also rather cheaper and offered a higher capacity thanks to its use of a hard disk. The change in size meant some changes had to be made to the controls. The wheel entered its third incarnation as the 'click wheel'. All the buttons were still there, and the select button stayed at the centre, but the other four buttons were moved to the wheel itself. This composite click wheel was the simplest and most innovative control interface of all digital music players.
Now the iPod was thriving in a big way. The fledgling iTunes Music Store was only just making a profit, but iPod sales were skyrocketing. In early 2004 a fourth generation iPod with the same control interface as the Mini was introduced. It also continued the trend of being smaller and lighter than its predecessor.
Now it was a case of keeping the sales increasing through steady updating of the iPod. In November, 2004 the iPod Photo was introduced. It was identical to the fourth-generation iPod, but it had a colour screen, and larger battery and hard disk capacities. During 2005 all iPods were given colour screens and photo compatibility. It was around this time that U2 endorsed an 'iPod U2 Special Edition', in black and red with the band's signatures on the back. The iPod Photo was also released as a limited edition Harry Potter iPod, which were engraved with the Hogwarts crest and were available only to buyers of Harry Potter audiobooks.
Shuffling Into The Flash Market
Up until now the iPods had been the kings of the high-end music player market. But now Apple attempted to move into the lower-budget flash market8 with the iPod Shuffle. It was tiny, around the size of a stick of chewing gum. This meant the screen and click wheel had to be done away with. Instead there was a centre play/pause button, surrounded by a circle (resembling a click wheel) with skip buttons and volume controls.
The iPod Mini (now in its second generation) had grown rapidly in popularity due to its small size, relative cheapness and large range of colours. It was already looking a little out of date, what with the full-size iPods having full-colour screens. The iPod Nano was the Mini's successor, but it was much more than an update. It was minuscule, barely bigger than a credit card. Inside it had been completely redesigned to save space and weight, with a brand new high capacity flash chip that held just as much as the old Mini's hard disk. Even the tiny click wheel was new.
Apple now had a stranglehold on the digital music market. In late 2005, it announced that its profits had quadrupled, largely due to the iPod. They also announced that over 28million devices had been sold, giving Apple a 75% market share for digital music players.
The fifth generation iPod (announced in October 2005) was hugely important because it introduced video compatibility. A large new high-resolution screen was used, and it was 30% thinner than the fourth generation.
In September 2006 the two lower-end iPod models were given updates. The Nano was given a wide range of colour options, a redesigned aluminium case which was more scratch-resistant, and greater capacity. The Shuffle was shrunk even further and given an integrated clip. It was advertised with the slogan 'Put some music on', referring both to the actual music and the fact the new Shuffle could be 'worn,' thanks to the clip. When the Shuffle was updated with a range of new colours, this was changed to 'Put some colour on'.
Summary of Models
|First||5, 10 GB||November 2001||10 GB update April 2002.|
|Second||5, 10, 20 GB||October 2002||The 5 GB model still had a mechanical 'scroll wheel' and not a touch sensitive one.|
|Third||10, 15, 20, 30, 40 GB||April 2003||Had a row of four touch-sensitive buttons. Started with 10, 15 and 30 GB models, but later updates changed range to 15, 20 and 40 GB.|
|Fourth/Photo||20, 30, 40, 60 GB||July 2004||Click wheel introduced. Colour Photo version introduced in October 2004. All versions made colour in June 2005.|
|Fifth||30, 60, 80 GB||September 2005||Supports viewing of videos and song lyrics. Made available in black as well as traditional white. Revised in September 2006 with a brighter display, longer video battery life, and a music search function.|
|First||4 GB||January 2004||Available in five colours. Had click wheel before fourth generation iPod did.|
|Second||4, 6 GB||February 2005||Battery life improved. Click wheel lettering changed to match body colour.|
|First||1, 2, 4 GB||September 2005||Available only in black and white. Flash memory introduced, photo compatibility added.|
|Second||2, 4, 8 GB||September 2006||Reintroduced six colour choices. New aluminium shell. Brighter screen, longer battery life and a music search function.|
|First||512 MB, 1 GB||January 2005||No screen or click wheel. First iPod to use flash memory.|
|Second||1 GB||September 2006||New aluminium case, even smaller with built-in clip. Colour choices later introduced.|
The iPod offered some extras in addition to playing music (and later viewing photos and videos). Text files can be copied across to the iPod and viewed as notes and calendars and contacts can be synced in the same way as music. Four games are pre-installed:
- Brick: bounce a ball off a platform you move along the bottom of the screen to hit the bricks arranged at the top. A brick disappears when it is hit; a level is completed when all the bricks are gone.
- Parachute: you control a gun turret and must shoot at helicopters and the paratroops in the sky.
- Music Quiz: the iPod selects a song at random and plays a sample while displaying the titles of five random songs. Select the correct title in the shortest possible time to gain the most points.
In September 2006 the fifth generation iPod's software was given an update to support adjustable screen brightness, gapless playback and downloadable games (bought from the iTunes Music Store). Since the iPod offers all that storage space it can also be used to store any computer files. The iPod can be 'enabled for disk use' and files copied across.
Various iPod accessories, produced both by Apple and other companies, have cashed in on the iPod's phenomenal success. These range from sound recorders, FM radio tuners, wired remote controls, and audio/visual cables for television connections to the innovative Nike+iPod pedometer. Various car manufacturers have made their stereos compatible with iPods, but in those that aren't there are still are wide range of cassette adapters or FM transmitters (which play the music on spare FM radio frequencies).
Apple released the iPod Hi-Fi in 2006 to compete with the wide range of third-party speaker systems. It was part of the company's bid to build a complete home entertainment system around the iPod, using the iPod's popularity to encourage sales of various accessories and Apple Macintosh computers. The iPhone and Apple TV were announced in January 2007 on this premise. The hotly-anticipated iPhone combined functions of a mobile phone, camera, iPod and PDA9. It heralds the future, where all commonly-used devices will be integrated into one, and suggests that the days of the iPod as we knew it are numbered. Apple TV was a set-top box which connected wirelessly with a computer and allowed access to everything stored in the iTunes library (both audio and video) through a television set.
DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, and basically means a system of technologies that manufacturers use to control access to and usage of digital data. It is a controversial thing to start with, but Apple's choice of DRM has caused some problems. The iTunes Music Store uses the FairPlay DRM, meaning all the songs you download from it have certain restrictions placed on them regarding their use, such as the number of computers the track can be authorised for playing on. One of the conditions is that these files (recorded in the 'Protected AAC' format) can only be played on iPods. They can be burned to CDs, but no other music players can play them. Apple has been criticised for this as it is seen as unfair to 'force' Music Store users to use iPods. In fact, the company has openly said they make little profit on sales of songs, and that the store is used primarily to encourage iPod sales.
Often it was found the advertised battery life for iPods could not be achieved in real-world conditions. It was an inevitable fact that the rechargeable batteries the iPod used would degrade over time but they seemed to do so very quickly, and so Apple was force to offer to replace batteries at a cost of £49. Many third parties offer iPod battery replacement at a lower cost and claim to use higher-capacity batteries.
A 2005 survey conducted on the MacInTouch website found that the iPod had an average failure rate of 13.7%, but some iPods are surprisingly durable. Some fail seemingly at random. The surfaces of many iPods scratch easily, especially the reflective metallic back. The first generation iPod Nano was infamous for the ease with which the screen scratched, prompting Apple to ship them with protective sleeves. The second generation Nano's aluminium case is significantly more scratch-resistant than the standard iPod casing. However, the Nano's use of flash memory chips rather than hard drives made it rather more durable than the full size iPod.
When they are new iPods look all shiny and pretty, but they can be ruined by scratches very quickly. There is therefore a large market for various cases to protect them.
Apple iPod advertising campaigns have been very successful and have become as recognisable as the iPod itself. They feature dark silhouetted characters against a brightly coloured background. The silhouettes dance along to various popular songs. The iPods themselves (and earphones) are in a very eye-catching white. This style is so recognisable it has prompted any number of spoof versions (for example, Weebl and Bob's Piepod). The adverts don't tell you anything about the iPod itself, and usually end with the appearance of the words 'iPod+iTunes' against a black screen. It is a testament to the way the iPod has infiltrated popular culture than anyone knows what the hell the advert is about.
The popularity of the iPod has suggested to many other companies that there is a market out there for the taking, if only they can crack what makes the iPod so popular - simplicity, looks and the cool factor. Some of the competitors offer 'iPod clones' but with additional features, while others go in a different direction.
Microsoft, not happy with its domination of the PC market, launched its 'iPod killer' in November, 2006. Although slightly bigger and heavier, the Zune is the same price as the iPod, and is packed with additional features, from an FM tuner and a bigger screen with customisable wallpapers to wireless connectivity. The last allows files to be sent from Zune to Zune within a range of 30 feet.
Creative offers stiff competition for both iPod and Nano. The standard iPod competitor, the Vision M, is a little chunkier, but has a far superior screen in terms of colour and resolution. It also has a built in FM radio and microphone as standard, and it only slightly pricier. The Zen V is very similar to the Nano, but the Zen V Plus version trumps it with video compatibility. Creatives are generally acknowledged as superior to the iPod in features, but their players tend to be bigger and slightly more expensive. Though their user interfaces are good, they can't quite match the iconic iPod style.
Ranging from 512MB to 8GB, Sansas could compete with both the Shuffle and Nano. The top-of-the-range e200 has a bigger screen than the Nano and offers FM playing and voice recording, for very similar prices. In August, 2006 SanDisk was the second-most popular digital audio player manufacturer.
However, none of these players are compatible with Apple's own Mac OS, meaning Apple has something of a captive market.
The iPod has continually revolutionised the market for multimedia hardware. Although it was rarely the first to innovate, it packaged it in a neat, minimalist style with a simple and effective user interface. This is the root of the iPod's success. Combined with iTunes (and later iPod 'ancillaries' like Apple TV and the iPod Hi-Fi) it offered an integrated home entertainment system. Innovations such as podcasting were incorporated into the iTunes software over time, broadening the iPod and iTunes scope. It was the iPod which turned Apple's fortunes around, and now sales of other Apple products, such as Macintosh computers, are rising as well. Still, the iPod has been partly a victim of its own success, as its popularity reduced its bespoke appeal. Sales are still high, but the rate of sales increase is decreasing.
Now the white earphones which come with the iPod are ubiquitous. A train carriage will likely be full of people advertising the fact they have one with those signature white earbuds. Unfortunately this has caused some problems. In April 2005 the New York transportation authorities urged users of public transport users to keep their iPods hidden as 50 iPods were stolen between January and April. Considering none were stolen in 2004, this is a big jump, and has probably resulted in some people making the switch to less conspicuously desirable music players, or at least buying some less distinctive headphones. In the words of one journalist:
You may think that having those tell-tale white earphones plugged into your head while you ride the subway/tube/metro makes you look cool. Well, we're not arguing, but it also acts as a big sign above your head saying '$400 iPod over here - please steal me!'
Visit the iPod buyer's guide for additional information.