This past weekend was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the iPod, which not only quietly started the remarkable Apple renaissance but also ushered in a new era that would eventually subsume everything, including us.
The iPod anniversary is a good reminder that the arc of time is long and invisible. It is appreciated only in time itself. In the immortal words of Steve Jobs, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
When iPod launched, digital music was a mess. Napster had awakened us to the potential of digital and online music, but the dream was a nightmare. The music industry hated Silicon Valley. (It still does.) You had to buy compact discs, rip them and then put those files onto your devices. These digital music players had exotic names — iRiver, Rio, and Creative Labs, for example. I had them all. I hated them all, though iRiver was pretty awesome for its time. We were so close, yet so far. Against that backdrop came the iPod.
The day iPod launched — October 23, 2001, a share of Apple would have cost you 33 cents. On Friday, October 22, 2021, a single share of Apple cost a whopping $148.69. Talk about a butterfly flapping its wings!
On the day of its launch, I wasn’t paying much attention. Like millions of other Americans, I was grieving for our nation. It had only been just a few weeks since the September 11 attacks. An MP3 player wasn’t my top priority — and I didn’t even write about Apple. CNet News reporter Connie Guglielmo recently shared her recollections of the launch day. Jobs touted 1000 songs in your pocket — on a 5-gigabyte hard drive.
Despite his marketing bluster, Apple as a company was skating on thin ice. It still was losing money. Sure, Jobs had managed to pull a rabbit out of its hat and prevented Apple from keeling over with cute yet underpowered but popular iMacs and iBooks. It needed a way for folks to be interested in the Mac. I certainly wasn’t. Internet — browsers and broadband — worked much better on Windows. I used a ThinkPad for all my non-official work. My job gave me an aging PowerBook that could barely open Microsoft Word and QuarkXpress simultaneously.
By the end of 2001, I had acquired an iPod and was grateful for my work-issue PowerBook. It was an excellent way to rip music from my vast CD collection and load it onto the iPod. It was clear that in time, I would switch to the Mac family. In a way, this was the ultimate objective of Apple: convince fence-sitters like me to become Mac people.
Apple wanted Mac to be at the center of a digital lifestyle. Mac was your digital hub. Jobs would repeat on every occasion. It would be a place to get your music, your photos, your home videos, connect to the Internet, and all the other things. Maybe knowingly (but more likely unknowingly), Apple had made a device that made it easy for normals to understand and embrace our then-new century’s big idea: the abstraction of our physical life into the digital domain.
The iPod was about quickly abstracting physical music. Digital cameras were abstracting photos and, by extension, thus, memories. Six years later, with the launch of the iPhone, this abstraction would become even more extreme. Fast forward to now: we have abstracted cars and mobility itself, money, restaurants, television, cinemas, medical devices, information, friendships, romance, and even coaches who used to help us with our serves and backhands. Even the phone itself is nothing more than just an app — only to be used when video calls don’t work. What’s more, the iPhone abstracted the iPod itself.
The digital hub that was supposed to be Mac is the iPhone (and its much more widely adopted Android brethren.) It is everything around which our life revolves.
In the case of both iPod and iPhone, one can’t underscore the importance of the early adopters. In its first holiday season, Apple sold 125,000 units. There were many doubters — after all, both iPod and iPhone weren’t perfect when they launched. They were a work in progress. But if you believed, you could see the potential. (Check out this Great interview iPodfather Tony Fadell.)
Both iPod and iPhone needed specialist stores and three revisions to become mainstream hits. Even the Apple watch needed three revisions to find its footing — no different than various editions of Windows or any other technology product.
In February 2002, I pitched an idea to Duff McDonald, one of my editors at Red Herring magazine. I wanted to do a short piece called — iPoddery! (In case you were wondering, I did write a short piece, about three paragraphs.) I had noticed that whenever I walked past another person wearing the white headphones that came with the iPod, there was a look of recognition, a silent smile, and a nod. As if we all were part of a secret club.
The white headphones were like the Louis Vuitton logo, the Gucci’s horse-bit loafer, and Chanel’s double CC. Jobs knew how to create lust for its products. Technology was becoming fashion. It was becoming life and lifestyle. In the two decades since the iPod’s launch, Apple is now a $2.46 trillion-dollar company.
Reminiscing about the iPod, I couldn’t help but think about two events around its launch whose impact we would appreciate only in time. The events of September 11, 2001, would take America down a path that would place unimaginable stress on our economy, society, and most importantly, our place in the pantheon of nations.
On a more personal front, frustrated by working for a magazine that wrote about technology but worked on an analog time scale, I threw myself into the nascent idea of blogging and started my blog. It was clear as a day to me: the Internet was increasing the metabolism of our society. Information was going to move at the network’s speed. Yet, the media industry at the time was trapped in the Mad Men era. That decision would eventually lead me to where I am today.
Like the iPod, Steve Jobs was right about one more thing: “So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
October 24, 2021. San Francisco