December 2009 – It’s hard to encapsulate just how profoundly the iPod/iTunes combination, and Apple’s deft management of it, has transformed our lives in the last 10 years. Perhaps the only way to truly grasp it is to have been a computer/Internet/music lover in 2000.
But even recalling that time isn’t easy. It’s hard to clearly remember a time without the iPod and iTunes. It feels like they’ve always been with us.
The Internet and the transition to digital have accelerated the kinds of sweeping historical, technological, and cultural transformations that used to take many decades. The transformation isn’t complete yet – witness the flailing of the newspaper industry over its dying model; we still haven’t solved getting web video to our TVs – but it’s happening faster than ever before.
The evolution of the iPod and iTunes is a microcosm of many of the sweeping changes – in entertainment, business, and culture – of the last decade.
Though it’s easy to forget, the iPod wasn't the first MP3 player. In fact, Apple was widely seen as letting the MP3 player market mature before it stepped in.
Though dozens of players had preceded it, from the iPod’s debut it was clearly the best of the bunch. Its simple interface and ease of loading music were unparalleled. That simplicity remained at the heart of the iPod even as it gained powerful features, such as the App Store.
It wasn’t obvious that the iPod would become nearly a quarter-billion seller. At its debut, the iPod held 1,000 songs and only worked on the Mac. Some dismissed the device, deeming it another Apple niche product. (That’s another major change wrought by the iPod/iTunes axis: Apple is now a major cultural and financial player. Its market capitalization is within $10 billion of Google and, at this writing, its stock is trading nearly 700% higher than Microsoft’s.)
In 2001, MP3 players were the definition of an early-adopter techie product. Now, with them seemingly in every pocket or bag, the stark contrast between then and now becomes apparent.
Bringing your entire music collection with you was practically unthinkable before the iPod. At the time the iPod was introduced, I wanted to take my music library – about 200 CDs, then – with me. My best option was a CD player that played MP3 CDs. The player cost $250 and would have required me to carry 20+ CDs. More portable than 200, but that hardly fits into a pocket! The iPod changed all that. Today, my phone can carry 25,000 songs as easily as 25.
Before the iPod, music wasn’t ubiquitous. After it, all entertainment is portable. As a mobile media player, the iPod laid the groundwork for PMPs and DVD players, the Kindle, and many other mobile devices.
To quantify the impact of the iPod, try this: count the number of people you know who don’t have iPods.
Think about that. Sure, there products almost everyone has – a TV, a car, a bike, a phone, whatever – but those are categories, products and models from many different companies. That’s not the case in MP3 players. If more than 20% of the MP3 player owners in your life have something other than an iPod, I’d be shocked (unless you work at Microsoft).
That’s how you measure a culture-wide shift.
When the decade began, iTunes existed, but not as we know it today. It started life as SoundJam MP. Apple bought it in 2000 and rechristened it iTunes in 2001.
In 2000, there was no major online store for downloadable music. But there was a dream: a jukebox of infinite depth, hosted on the Internet, that anyone could access at any time to hear any song ever recorded.
That dream was widely shared, and many companies tried to realize it. Some – Napster and MP3.com, most notably – came close, but most failed under the weight of music-industry lawsuits. In the vacuum left for want of a legal option, piracy thrived (though it might not have been apparent then, this may well have doomed the music industry as we’ve known it).
Just how hungry consumers were for this can be summed up in one statistic: in just eight years, iTunes went from an upstart digital music store to the world’s largest music retailer.
The world’s largest. Not the largest online, the largest anywhere. It flourished while consumers bought more music than maybe ever before and major music stores – Tower Records, comes to mind – went out of business. There’s hardly a better metaphor for the shift from physical to digital in this decade than that. To put an even finer point on it, Apple is now a key player in the music industry, given the power of iTunes as a promotion and distribution channel.
ITunes also changed how we interact with media. Now we expect to get the media we want whenever we want it. TV shows is now on our schedule, any music can be had for a few mouse clicks and $0.99. ITunes, didn’t create them, but it helped popularize podcasts; now they’re an integral part of the media landscape.
These days, people are just as likely to download music as buy a CD (many have given up physical music entirely; if I can’t get something at iTunes or eMusic, I don’t get it at all), and this transition is drastically changing business. It’s lead to successful regional music chains like Newbury Comics being convinced that their existence is threatened despite having 28 stores throughout New England).
ITunes – along with Napster at the start of the decade and MySpace in the middle – trained a generation of music lovers that the Internet is the first, and often only, place to go for music. As so many other industries affected by the switch to digital have learned, there’s no going back.
This will be the way it is – at least until another epochal change upends digital downloads.