The enduring legacy of the iPod

While the pace of technology can seem sloggish when we're on the third year of similar smartphone designs, it sometimes takes a step back to make you realize just how much has changed. Fifteen years ago, I was in my first year of high school and the web was still considered more of a geeky fascination than mainstream success. It was the age of Neopets and Napster for those of us lucky enough to score fast internet connections and personal computer time, and if you wanted music in your pocket, you either were nerdy enough to have invested in a MiniDisc player, or (more likely) you shoved a Walkman into a bookbag.

That year, I was the first person at my high school to own an iPod. I can't remember why my father was gracious enough to gift me one of the plastic-and-steel music players — my birthday was months away at that point — though I suspect it may have been a result of constant hint-dropping. And, hey: My dad has always been an Apple enthusiast at his core. He may have initially bought the iPod for his own uses, only to have me reconfigure it for my own day-to-day life.

Whatever the reason, that iPod quickly became one of my most prized possessions next to my iBook (also pretty new). I showed it off to anyone and everyone who would listen, proudly proclaiming its superiority over the Walkman and, to a friend's amusement, his paltry 32MB Rio PMP300. (We made a bet on the bus one day about which music player would end up a mainstay in five years which I never collected on — largely because him listening to at least three months of Apple braggadocio and remaining my friend was enough payment.)

As someone who loved music and scored soundtracks in her head, the iPod was a revelation: It made even the most mundane of tasks something special. It proved useful in school, too, letting me rehearse for plays by reading along to MP3s of recorded scripts. And, perhaps most importantly of all, it helped spur a growing interest in consumer technology and gave me my first avenue in educating and helping people with their devices.

I had many Apple devices before the original iPod and have purchased many more since, but it's perhaps telling that its 5GB steel shell remains in a cherished place on my desk, 15 years later. It wasn't just software that made the iPod successful — while dated, its design remains one of my all-time favorites. I'd spin that click-wheel to mitigate stress, or while thinking up something to write, or simply because it was there in my pocket and I wanted something to occupy my hands. Spoiler: It still spins today. It even boots up, though its battery is long past the point of holding more than a few minutes' charge.

But this little white rectangle is responsible for pretty much every pocket-sized product Apple has produced since. Jason Snell said it best in his (now ten year old) five-year-reflection on the iPod for Macworld:

Holding one of those first-generation iPods in my hands today, it's striking just how much the iPod hasn't changed in five years. It's still a white block with a stainless steel back. Sure, the details have evolved: the edges were sharp, but now are smooth; the screen is now colorful and capable of displaying photos and videos; the scroll wheel doesn't physically move anymore. But that original iPod—with its 5GB hard drive, full-sized FireWire port, and $399 price tag—got a remarkable number of details right the very first time. No wonder it became such a success.

The iPod amplified Apple's brand into the mainstream, giving many users a chance to enter the company's ecosystem for the first time. From there, the "halo effect" took hold — it wasn't hard to love a Mac once you got used to that simple little rectangle. (And for all the flack iTunes rightfully gets now, in the mid-2000s, it and the iPod made adding music blissfully simple, where other products felt clunky and complicated.)

Over the years, the iPod has ceded its position to the iPhone; in 2016, the idea of a device that only does music seems almost ridiculous. ("No GPS? No headphones-as-MP3-player? No step tracker?") But fifteen years ago, that idea was revolutionary enough to help bring about the modern age of portable devices. The iPod rightfully deserves its place on my desk — and in the cabinet of technology history.

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

  • I don't know why iTunes gets any flack really. It's still the best way to sync music to a device locally. As a matter a fact, it may be the only one. Of course, like the Genius playlist they removed in iOS 10, that may also be subject to change. The iPod Video was my first one. I used it untill the FF click broke on it and I moved on to a Sony Walkman MP3 player. Later I got the Zune HD and the Zune software plus subscribtion was truly an eye opener. 10 DRM-FREE songs and unlimited streams and music videos for 15 bucks a month sounded like a no brainer to me. But alas, like the iPod, all good things must come to an end.
  • Yea I agree I had a great iTunes library but in the end streaming would win IMO. I was tired or trying to find songs and at times you buy an album you really didn't like. There was the growing pain times. Pandora and a few other I don't recall but nothing like Spotify or Apple Music. The day Spotify came out to the US market I say bye bye to buying CDs and downloading them. Never again I hope.
  • Ha ha, try taking .wav and .flac off an external hard drive and put them into iTunes. Hint, it doesn't work. You first have to download a media converter and convert the non iTunes compatible files to iTunes compatible files before you can transfer them into iTunes. Not a fun time. Sent from the iMore App
  • Funny you brought up iPods today. I've been thinking about doing some mods: Rockbox OS, Bluetooth, SSD. Still in recon mode, but always loved the design and would love to play around with it again. Sent from the iMore App
  • 15 years ... Time sure flies.. And to think back then all we had was a mere 5 Giggity-byte.
  • Yeah I loved my iPod with the control wheel in the center and was actually very easy to use and navigate the menus.
    Hard to believe that was 15 years ago Sent from the iMore App
  • My 120Gb iPod Classic remains my preferred music source on the go, especially in my car, as bugs that iOS 10 introduced to CarPlay make it useless for me. I disagree with the idea that a single-tasking music player without streaming is an unthinkable device in 2016; there is always room for any gadget that does one thing and does it extremely well -- that will always fit the bill with someone. I really wish they still made the Classic, or made the iPod nano in much higher capacities. Since iOS 10 I've been looking outside Apple for high end music players, in preparation for that sad, inevitable day when my Classic no longer functions. I hope that day is a long way off, because the iPod is still the best out there for me. Sent from the iMore App
  • I just posted similar thoughts. Refurbed ipods are on ebay but very pricey. When some of my older ones quit, i sent them away for new parts installation. Lots of fixit options around. I figure i will be ipod -friendly for some time now. Tech companies need to know that there are lots of places where wifi isn't available and where cell access is impractical until newer twchnologies like white space internet roll out widely. I have no intention of paying through the nose either for additional data, assuming it may even be available, to stream everything. A standard resolution file that is resident on your local device will sound better than anything that reliably streams. And its free, once purchased. My cds are burned at 256 or 320 kps, and even the standard Aac files from iTunes will perform well for most folks, and generally far better than a streaming option in nearly all cases. It nearly all sounds great through both my mid-level system as well as my audio technica headphones. No complaints. And nothing compares to carrying that collection with me wherever I go. Still thrilled with ipod.
  • The ipod classic is still my go-to device, it works marvelously, now that i had a hard drive replacement and a new battery. I figure i can get by with my bank of refurbished ipods for a number of years until someone hopefully sees the value again of producing a high capacity, dedicated digital music player, that recalls the original iTunes/iPod ease and functionality. Maybe Apple will someday recognize that it should again fill that need.
  • I always wondered why Apple didn't implement a virtual version of the click wheel for the iPhone lock screen when listening to the Music App. I still think it was one of the best interfaces ever designed.
  • I still have my original iPod, and I'm impressed at how much I like the display (particularly the lovely Chicago typeface and the reflective screen which is great in broad daylight but also has backlighting for lower-light conditions), the original "hardware" scroll wheel (with clicking speaker that presaged future haptics), the form factor, and the sound quality: the original iPod sounds fantastic and is both better and significantly louder than any other iPod or iPhone that I've tried, with the possible exception of the 7 plus with lightning earPods (the lightning earPods are definitely louder and also seem better than older earPods at the same perceived volume.) I'm still shocked at how good 15-year-old MP3s sound on the original iPod. I swear it makes the 3.5mm-plug earPods sound better than any other device I have, and it also puts out enough power to drive larger headsets. I'm also amazed that the battery still holds a charge, although I should probably replace it at this point. A true classic, often imitated but rarely improved upon.
  • In comparison, for example, the same tracks sound muddier (high end instruments like acoustic guitar and cymbals sound noticeably worse, even with the same mediocre MP3 encoding, while bass guitar is also harder to pick out; stereo image is worse as well), and they exhibit more distortion (particularly at high volume) on the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 5, which is annoying since the iPhones are also quieter than the iPod. The iPhones aren't terrible, but the iPod 1 seems better at any volume level. The 7 plus + lightning earPods is the best iPhone I've tried, but I've yet to A/B it with the iPod.
  • I wish Apple would make a larger capacity nano or a slimmed down, ssd based classic :( I bought a sansa clip after tiring of rotating audio books on 16gb. I do miss the stability of itunes (in comparison to audible sw) and easy to use device menus. I carry everything in my front pockets and am not required to carry a cellphone at work. I'm happy to tote a small paper notebook and small mp3 player. I could pocket one of my classics, but I prefer lanyards for ease of access. The back of my neck does not.