20 years ago Apple introduced the iPod, the perfect gateway drug to the Mac

And that led to the iPhone, which led to world domination.

Nathan Ingraham / Engadget

It’s hard to remember, but 20 years ago, Apple was not a very cool company. Sure, OS X was intriguing, and the titanium PowerBook was definitely a cool computer, But when most people thought of Apple, it was probably the bulbous, colorful iMac G3 that popped into people’s heads. The company was starting to build its reputation for truly desirable products, but it wasn’t solidified just yet.

That all changed on October 23, 2001, when Steve Jobs pulled the first iPod out of his pocket. For a generation of music fans, it became the quintessentially cool item that was more than just a fad. It’s not a stretch to say it reinvented the music industry while simultaneously paving a path for Apple to become the world’s biggest company. It was the ultimate gateway drug to getting people who had never bought an Apple product before to see what all the fuss was about.

At this point, the somewhat skeptical reception to the iPod is part of tech industry lore – particularly Slashdot’s dismissal of the product as “lame” compared to a Nomad MP3 player. (Raise your hand if you ever used a Nomad. That’s what I thought.) And it’s not like the product was an instant hit – the first iPod cost $400 and only worked with the Mac, two factors that limited its appeal.

Those limitations helped it achieve some serious cachet, though. Seeing an iPod in the wild was a rarity, and my Mac-owning friends who were early adopters had to deal with my incessant questions and requests to hold it and spin its distinctive wheel. It didn’t help that my college suite-mate (who had a titanium PowerBook and iPod) and graphic designer friend (with a PowerMac G4 and iPod) were constantly going off about how great their hardware was. I was primed to become one of those switchers Apple liked to talk about in the early 2000s.

The iPod may have started out as a Mac-only product, but less than a year later, Apple opened it up to the other 98 percent of computer users by introducing a Windows-compatible model in the summer of 2002. Less than a year after that, Apple completely redesigned the iPod and released a new version of iTunes for Windows. At the same time, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, making it a lot easier to get legal music onto an iPod. With that, the iPod moved fully into the mainstream.

There’s no good way to quantify how many people bought an iPod for Windows and then eventually switched to a Mac. But, Mac sales increased from about 3 million in 2003 to more than 7 million by 2007. Apple’s move to more powerful Intel processors in 2005 likely helped adoption, but the iPod “halo effect” was often cited in the mid-2000s as a driver of the Mac’s increasing popularity.

Growing Mac sales and the most popular consumer electronics device of the decade truly paved the way for the iPhone to be the monumental success that it was almost. Sure, the iPhone eventually killed the iPod, but as Steve Jobs said, he’d rather cannibalize Apple's sales with another Apple product than let some other company do it — this was how he justified the existence of the iPod touch, which was basically an iPhone without a phone.

I might be overselling the iPod to Mac to iPhone evolution, because I lived it. After getting a second-generation iPod in 2002 (embarrassing admission time: I also bought four more full-size iPods between then and 2009), I got my first Mac in 2003 and the first iPhone in late 2007. I remember being more excited about my first iPhone than my first iPod, mostly because it was light years better than the Moto RAZR I was using at the time. But my first iPod was similarly a huge step forward from the MP3 players I owned before. And in my early 20s, there was nothing more important to me than music.

That may not make me unique, but it’s still true. Before the iPod was everywhere, someone else who had one was someone you could trust. They took music as seriously as you did; they knew how liberating it was to have your 100 favorite albums with you, on demand, any time you needed them. In a world where Apple Music offers access to 90 million songs anywhere you are for 10 bucks a month, that might seem quaint. But 20 years ago, it was a revelation.

I still have the last iPod I ever purchased, a 2008 iPod classic with 120GB of storage – about the same space as I have in my iPhone 12 Pro. It’s still stuffed to the gills with music, some 11,000-plus songs, most of which come from albums I carefully selected over time. Most of them are still in my Apple Music library, which has now ballooned to more than double that size, with over 25,000 songs.

I’m still a firm believer in the art of making a good album, but I’ve also collected thousands of singles, or a handful of songs from artists who catch my ear on one of the many curated playlists out there. The music industry has changed, and so have I. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a debate for another time, but there’s no doubt that both the music and technology industries changed completely because of the iPod – something its humble introduction 20 years ago only barely hinted at.

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