How the iPod Started 5 Revolutions



The original iPod, just a decade old today, was little more than a hard disk with earbuds. But this humble little gadget launched five revolutions that made consumer electronics what it is today.

In fact, everything Apple is today sprang from the iPod seed. From Apple’s revenues to design influence to the fundamental business and distribution models that glue the industry together, the iPod started it all.

So put in those white earbuds and click “play.” Because if you love consumer electronics, you’re about to hear how the iPod started it all.

1. The one-song revolution

The music industry had a good thing going. They sold “albums” on CD. That meant they could get people to spend between $12 and $18 to buy the one song they wanted to own, because it was available only as part of a larger bundle of music.

Even those rare visionaries in the music industry who could see the writing on the wall about digital music assumed that music would be downloaded as entire albums.

But because of the iPod’s obscurity (no music industry executive believed that Apple would come to dominate electronic music sales), as well as the legendary influence of Steve Jobs, Apple convinced music labels to allow songs to be sold not only individually, but mostly at the same price point.

And because of the soaring and unexpected popularity of the iPod as a gadget, the single-song download became the industry standard.

2. The online store device revolution

The most exciting category of consumer electronics right now is (arguably) the multi-touch tablet. The industry is dominated right now by iPad. Soon, I believe, Amazon will become and remain the solid number-two maker of tablets.

These two companies will dominate the industry with a model that no other major company shares — they’re in a league of their own.

That model is the tablet-as-storefront concept. The Amazon approach is to clobber other major tablets with unbeatable low prices for the hardware. But those prices are made possible because the new Kindles are cash registers, point-of-sale devices for everything Amazon sells. The low price is subsidized by all the products and media you’ll buy through that tablet from Amazon.

Apple doesn’t subsidize tablets. But the massive profitability of iPads is the result in part of that gadget’s primary use, which is to buy things from and through Apple.

The iPod mainstreamed the concept of the consumer electronics hardware device whose main purpose is the buying of things from the company that makes the gadget. It’s the razor and razor-blade model applied to consumer electronics, and the iPod started it.

3. The app store revolution

The iTunes concept was re-envisioned by Apple as the App Store concept, the now-standard model for buying software.

It’s hard to remember now, but smart phones had apps long before Apple put an “i” in front of the word “Phone.” Palm and Windows CE or whatever it was called at the time, had plentiful apps. The model was akin to the PC shareware model, where shady sites with names like “Eurocool” offered downloads, which had to be installed from the PC in a somewhat cumbersome process. Upgrades and updates required user knowledge and initiative. And interface standards were non-existent.

The App Store model that Apple invented involved a locked-down process for application development, a submission and approval process and a download and upgrade method that couldn’t be simpler for the user.

Apple’s App Store model was so powerful and compelling that every major software company or software platform vendor, including even Microsoft, largely attempts to copy Apple’s example.

And it all started with iPod and iTunes, which made it very simple to find, download and install music from a single location.

4. The touch revolution

The iPod’s original click wheel was rudimentary. Unlike later iPods, the original wheel traveled with your finger, physically turning.

But the mechanical wheel gave way to the capacitive sensing wheel, which used the energy from your finger to register the touch.

The experience of using the iPod was dominated by the tactile feedback loop of touching and on-screen feedback, as well as using a circular gesture and other gestures to control menu navigation. And this touchy-feely experience was the key differentiator between the iPod line and other media players.

Apple really liked this idea, and set to work developing future touch-centric, gesture-happy capacitive touch interfaces that would result in the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad user interfaces. Eventually, I believe, most desktop systems will have touch as well.

The touch-screen computers of the future can all be traced back to the original iPod, whose humble wheel interface convinced Steve Jobs and Apple that touch enhances the user’s experience of a device, and should form the basis of all future interfaces.

5. The media appliance revolution

If you like the iPad concept, thank the iPod. What started out as cooler-than-average music player became a multimedia player, complete with pictures and video.

All along, the iPod was the opposite of the hobbyist PC concept that the vast majority of computers were based on. Unlike the PC, which was modular and upgradable but required file management and user-initiated optimization, the iPod was a single unmodifiable “thing” that didn’t require any work on the part of the user to keep it running well.

This concept was brought over to the iPhone, which was not that big of a deal. But when the media appliance shipped in the form of the iPad, it was a very big deal, because it was the first media appliance that could reasonably be used as an alternative to a PC, for many people and many uses.

This media appliance concept will probably come to dominate the consumer PC space, and it all started with iPad, which started with the iPhone, which started with the iPod.

We measure the greatness of things not by how they compare with the (always better, faster and cheaper) things we enjoy now, but by the degree of influence they had on what would come later.

“Citizen Kane” is practically unwatchable now. But it’s considered one of the greatest movies ever because it changed the direction of movies. It was ground-breaking and influential.

Likewise, few of us carry the original iPod today. And thanks to the iPhone, many don’t need any kind of iPod.

But we’ve got to praise the product because it changed the direction of consumer electronics and led to the awesome spectrum of gadgets, appliances and services we now enjoy every day.

Happy birthday, iPod. Thanks for everything.


  • imajoebob

    Ridiculous.  The “design revolution” sprang from the 2d generation iMac, the all-white “mushroom.”  The current audio/video paradigm started in OS 9, and found it’s home in consumer hands with OS X.  Everything special in the iPod OS, compared to prior MP3 players, can be traced back to QuickTime, including the idea of downloading media to play.

    The iPod was/is simply the best combination of a LOT of different but related hardware. software, interfaces, and paradigms.  There’s a lot of genius involved in seeing the interoperability and relation of all those separate components, but they all existed, from downloadable apps and music to mobile phones and MP3 players well before the iPod.

    The iPod is the culmination of those ideas; the nexus not the genus.

  • aardman

    Sorry, wrong, the razor and razor blade model doesn’t quite fit Apple.  Razor manufacturers sell the razors at a loss then make money on the blades.  This is what Amazon plans to do with its tablet.  Apple does it backwards.  They sell the blades at break even or very close to it, and make money on the razors.  The cheap razor blades adds to the attractiveness of the razors, though it is not the main attraction.  Kodak is trying to do the same with printers.

  • twitter-16071221

    Great article and I agree for the most part. Desktops, however, I’m not so sure about, unless you mean input devices such as the Magic Trackpad, sold by you know who.

    I bought mine on day one if its release and it was exactly one month earlier that I had switched to the Mac platform and had immediately fallen in love with the Magic Mouse (that came with my iMac). I would be using it today, but there was no learning curve for me as far as the Trackpad is concerned. Love at first swipe. I also love the additional gestures that came as part of OS X Lion, for which you needed a 3rd party plug-in before. It’s great to have them all in one package now. It has become so effortless and blazing fast for me swiping my way through the operating system as well as through applications, three browsers w/ 20 tabs open each, settings, etc.

    I had already used computers for 15 years before and pretty much loved them all, but the Mac took what had already been a blast (and source of income) for me to a level that I had not anticipated. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

  • bluefalcon75

    Sorry, but, “Citizen Kane” is anything but ‘unwatchable’.

    Really, what an silly bit of opinion to be included in this already dubious bit of journalism.

  • MacAdvisor

    Citizen Kane is very watchable, having seen it just the other week. It remains a marvel of a picture and of great story telling. The reporter wants to know what “rosebud” is and asks everyone who knew Kane to find out. He never does, but we learn much about Kane along the way. 

    Birth of a Nation is largely unwatchable today and it had an even more significant impact on movies than did Citizen Kane. It changed movies from one reel to multiple reels creating the about-two-hours format still used today. Until then, movies were not longer than twenty minutes. 

  • vikram333

    Citizen Kane is still a very watchable movie but I digress.

    At least Mike no longer thinks that the Zune is going to kill the iPod.

  • Alcofrybas

    No matter how much I love my old iPod video (as they used to be called), I never carry it with me. It just stays docked in my Bose sound system, like an antique I enjoy having around me.

  • vikram333

    Citizen Kane is still great.

    At least Mike no longer thinks that the Zune is going to kill the iPod.

    Google “Mike Elgan, Zune scares Apple”

  • Payton

    I was expecting a better article from the writer.

  • Jgrasjo

    I actually still carry mine with me, it is still quite well protected in at the time cool agent 18 hard case.
    it has entertained me with music and audio books on countless transatlantic flights.
    I totally agree now at its advanced age of 6 it does feel like an antique :)

  • CharliK

    “Even those rare visionaries in the music industry who could see the writing on the wall about digital music assumed that music would be downloaded as entire albums.”

    Not exactly. The labels wanted the stores set up so it was full albums only but got no sales while napster etc were still going strong. They gave in to the notion of single tracks on 99% of albums because they weren’t really given a choice. 

    Oh and learn to use IMDB so you don’t screw up the name of one of the most famous movies of all time. It’s Citizen KANE, not Cane. 

  • CharliK

    Same as printers. HP etc can afford to do that rebate with computer gig at the Apple Stores because the real money is the way order priced ink. 

  • imajoebob

    I walk the pooches about 1.5-2 miles every day, and the video IS my iPod, because it does everything I need a music player to do.  I’d still be using my photo, except I broke the click wheel connector replacing the hard drive (I was replacing the HD with an SD card!).  It was cheaper to buy a “dead” 30GB video off ebay for 30 bucks and revive it.  I’d still be using my 3rd Gen in the car if I could get a 20GB drive for a decent price.