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RIP iPod, the MP3 Player That Changed the Way We Listen to Music

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Apple has discontinued the iPod after a remarkable 20-year run — and a music industry transformed.

By Jamie Lendino

The first time I heard an MP3 file was back in 1995. It was some proto-drum-and-bass track that I had downloaded to my PC from an FTP site, back when the web was just beginning to go mainstream. I don’t remember the name of the song or the artist. But I do remember I was stunned at how clear it sounded. It was a full four-minute digital audio track that, at just a couple of megabytes, was also small enough to download in a few minutes over a dial-up connection.

Today, with the exception of a growing band of vinyl enthusiasts, everyone listens to digital music. The single biggest reason for that is Apple’s iconic iPod. Almost overnight, the iPod was everywhere in the aughts, with giant billboard ads, TV commercials, and throngs of people in cities with white earbuds in their ears.

Now that Apple is sunsetting the iPod after a 20-year run, it seems fitting to look back at its origin and how it utterly changed the way we listen to music today.

Apple Took Its Time

A flurry of unknown start-ups released the first batch of MP3 players in the late 1990s. They were cramped by current standards, with just 32MB or 64MB of internal memory—enough for an album or two’s worth of music, or a decent mixtape. Ripping your music to digital files offered advantages compared with swapping CDs or recording to MiniDiscs; they didn’t skip, and you could rearrange them however you like. But it was the rise of illegal file-sharing on Napster, Kazaa, and other peer-to-peer services that cemented the MP3 as the new format of choice. And as the market for MP3 players expanded, Creative Labs, Samsung, and some other familiar names jumped into the fray.

An Apple iBook and iPod circa 2001 (Photo: Apple Corp. via Getty Images)

True to form, Apple watched the market for a couple of years. Then Steve Jobs announced the sleek new iPod on October 23, 2001, a hard left turn for a company still mostly known for its Macintosh, including the colorful new iMac line, and a giant faceplant in the handheld PDA market.

The iPod was remarkably expensive at $399, and only worked with Macs. But it also had an impressively roomy 5GB 1.8-inch hard drive. This meant that instead of 10 or 20 songs, it could put 1,000 songs in your pocket, as the original ad went—no other MP3 player at the time came close. That was a good portion of the average music lover’s CD collection, and certainly more than a zippered case full of cassettes.

With the iPod, you still had to rip all your CDs to your computer using Apple’s iTunes software. But it meant you could listen to any of your favorite songs on a whim. Apple continued to refine the iPod over the next couple of years, introducing Windows compatibility (a huge step) and the brilliant Click Wheel design. The company also began lowering the price and offering new versions that were smaller, had color screens that could play video, or had increasingly capacious hard drives.

Steve Jobs introducing new iPods in 2005 (Photo: Kimberly White/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Advent of Buying Digital Music

The other big piece of the puzzle was Apple’s 2003 introduction of the iTunes Music Store, which changed the music industry overnight. It meant you could buy a 99-cent single instead of an entire album, many of which normally cost $15 to $18 and only had one or two good songs. This decision—and the behind-the-scenes scramble and persistent work to get all the extremely reluctant major labels on board—was key to launching the iPod into the stratosphere. Customers finally had an easy way to buy music legally and on their terms. Much more than even the iMac, the iPod reversed Apple’s decline and sent the company’s fortunes skyrocketing.

Within the span of a few years, people went from primarily buying CDs or illegally sharing music on Napster, Kazaa, and other now-defunct services, to buying music online through Apple. Competing services sprang up, but for a long time, none could put a dent in Apple’s lead.

Creative Zen Micro MP3 Players at CES 2005 in Las Vegas (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I spent the mid-2000s reviewing various MP3 players for different technology publications, from brands like Archos, Cowon, Creative, iRiver, Sony, and Toshiba. Many were quite good, but usually let down by their buggy third-party software, or even by Microsoft Windows Media Player and its clumsy DRM. In comparison, Apple’s iTunes software worked perfectly with the iPod, even when connected to Windows PCs (for a time, at least). All you had to do was sync up with the wire each time you wanted to add new music or new playlists.

The iPod also found its way into cars. In 2004, BMW launched the first in-vehicle iPod integration, an innovation that other automakers quickly copied. It was a huge advance over messy cassette-tape adapters for your portable CD player, or even trunk-mounted CD changers from the 1990s.

In tandem with the rise of the iPod, an entire market of third-party accessories propped up with all manner of cases, aftermarket earbuds, and alarm clocks and speaker docks that also charged the iPod. Stereo systems no longer meant large racks of components or gaudy mini-systems swathed in silver plastic, with “XXXTREME BASS” in all caps plastered to the speaker grilles. Now, a stereo system could be a single speaker that was infinitely more compact and yet project sound across the room (although it didn’t sound very stereo). Bose’s SoundDock became the most popular, but JBL, Logitech, and many others made competitive models, many of which cost less. These third-party accessories all contributed to Apple’s bottom line, thanks to the requisite licensing fees for the proprietary 30-pin iPod connector.

Audiophiles still preferred the sound of lossless CD rips to 128Kbps or even 256Kbps music files (thankfully, Amazon MP3 nudged Apple and the rest of the industry to better-sounding codecs in the late 2000s). But increasingly, people moved their collections over to digital. It was just too convenient to ignore. iTunes meant you could organize your entire music collection on your computer and make untold numbers of playlists for moods, activities, days of the week, nostalgia, or whatever other ways you wanted. You could even sell off all your CDs.

The Logitech Pure-Fi Elite, an excellent speaker dock I reviewed in 2007

The Rise of Streaming and Wireless Audio

Apple kept going in the late 2000s, building out the iPod nano line with flash storage after cornering the world’s supply of NAND flash. Even as more people began to carry so-called “smart” phones like the Palm Treo and Motorola Q that could play MP3s, many consumers (including me) stuck with their iPods, which became ever smaller and continued to work with speaker docks and an increasing number of car stereos with iPod connectors.

Then the world started to pass the iPod by. Apple’s increasingly bloated iTunes software was part of the reason, as Cupertino stuffed music videos, movie rentals, discovery algorithms, and even social networking into its essential music app. Lots of us bemoaned iTunes’ increasingly precarious state in the reviews of the day. But the two main culprits that did in the iPod were wireless and streaming audio.

The first was easy to predict, because Apple did it to itself with the iPhone. Introduced in 2007, the iPhone did everything the iPod did and worked exactly the same way, except with a touch screen instead of the Click Wheel. Why carry two devices if you could carry just one that doubles as your cell phone? Sure, it took a few years for iPhones to pick up enough storage capacity to match hard-drive-equipped iPods, and for wireless Bluetooth speakers to catch up to iPod speaker docks in sound quality, variety, and cost. But the writing was already on the wall for wired iPods.

The Bose SoundLink Mini II, one of many Bluetooth speakers

The other culprit, the rise of streaming services, took longer to mature. Pandora and Slacker excelled at internet radio, but replacing your music library and playlists was a much tougher problem. Many early subscription-based entries (including Napster, which tried and failed to rebrand) had spotty music catalogs and prohibitive, often buggy DRM. Spotify changed all that. Why bother downloading and ripping MP3s when you could play anything you wanted at any time you wanted for a low monthly fee, and still make as many playlists as you wanted? Soon, Apple rebranded iTunes as Apple Music to catch up.

Put these two innovations together—wireless and streaming—and it spelled the end for the iPod.

Apple Music, which the company introduced in 2015

Sunset of the iPod

I grew up in the days of record and tape collections. CDs offered “perfect sound forever,” as was claimed on the format’s 1982 introduction. (At least until they got scratched too much; then they offered “horribly skipping sound forever.”) And in the past year, both Spotify and Apple Music finally caught up to Tidal and finally began streaming music at full CD-quality, in 16-bit, 44.1kHz lossless, although whether you’re actually hearing that is a different question.

Today, streaming services give you access to everything. This has its drawbacks; for starters, it no longer feels like your music. You can still make playlists, but nothing prevents Spotify or Apple from changing the version of the song you hear, or from even pulling it entirely. I thought this would be a deal breaker, but it turns out that most people don’t care about personalized music collections ( High Fidelity be damned)—it matters more that you never have to buy albums or songs ever again. And of course, it’s easier to manage playlists on streaming services than bouncing files back and forth between devices and computers.

Some of us also miss the blissful isolation of just listening to music, with a device that can only play music, and not also infest your afternoon with doomscrolling or notifications or countless other interruptions that mean you never fully detach from anything, even for a few minutes. (I’m fine, really.) A thriving enthusiast market for used and classic iPods has already blossomed.

But in the end, what seemed like a total impossibility in the mid-2000s has finally come to pass: The iPod has outlived its usefulness. Its demise marks a natural bookend to an amazing era of transformation, both in the music industry and in the way we all listen to music.

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.

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