ipod harvard hero moment

Harvard Hero moment #3: “With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again”

John Crossley

09 Sep 2019

When Apple launched its first-generation iPod on October 23, 2001, the immortal quote from Steve Jobs couldn’t have been more on the money. As we toast the year of our 40th anniversary at Harvard we’re celebrating our hero moments from the last four decades of technology. Looking back at the launch of the iPod 18 years on, I find it hard to disagree with Jobs – his words ringing true from Apple’s original launch press release. The range would go on to sell an estimated 400 million units, helping set up Apple to be one of the defining companies of the 21st century.

Born from humble, clunky beginnings

As a teenager I had been obsessed with my Walkman. First it was tape cassettes, before I then made the big upgrade to CD at the end of the nineties. The struggle at the time was storage (i.e. all my music in a rucksack), and a painful reliance on rechargeable batteries. Back then MP3 players weren’t a new thing. Apple wasn’t the first to market. Early MP3 players were just…not very good. They were either too bulky, heavy, or the battery wouldn’t last much longer than a bus journey into town. But in a style which Apple has become renown for, the company took an existing idea and turned it into something amazing for the consumer. The result? Much like how the aforementioned CD Walkman hauled us from analogue audio to digital, the iPod opened the door on truly portable consumer electronics. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a third-generation iPod – which for the first time allowed for USB connectivity, bringing PC-owning mortals into the fold. And yes, I was leaving behind the quite satisfying ‘click’ and ‘whir’ as Prodigy’s Fat of Land fired up inside my CD Walkman. But all of a sudden a ‘moderate’ sized collection of MP3s would fit into my back pocket –20GB of storage was enough space to carry around 4,000 tracks. As well as 8 hours of battery life, the intuitive jog wheel was designed with the user in mind, making it easier to scroll through an entire collection with just one hand. On the first gen iPod, the FireWire port transferred a CD’s worth of tracks in 10 seconds – totally annihilating anything else on the market at the time. Even the iPod name was cool – apparently inspired from Stanley Kubrik’s iconic 2001 and the line: “Open the Pod Bay doors, Hal.” The iPod was a watershed moment in technology, design and cultural impact.

Apple had an eye on the future

By the late 90s the rise of illegal file-sharing sites such as Napster was challenging the way in which music was distributed to an audience. While it terrified the music industry, the companies which understood this shift were able to capitalise. Apple launched iTunes in 2001 as a way of managing your collection, before launching the iTunes Store in 2003 – a bold move considering the rampancy of piracy. When you consider the billions Apple has since made through selling music, services, and apps, that first step puts everything else into context. And we can’t forget that as the iPod got more and more advanced it would turn into something else altogether – in June 2007 its recognisable design would morph into the first iPhone, Apple’s first smartphone. The groundwork was laid for Apple’s dominance today, and it all started with that little white box.