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14th November 2016

Feature: Fifteen years of the iPod – how has Apple’s gamble shaken up the music industry?

The iPod was introduced by Apple fifteen years ago, and we feel old. Rebekah Shaw asks: what has the technology of the millennium brought for music?

The 1980s had cassette players, the 1990s had CD players, and the 2000s had mp3 players. Brought out in 2001, the iPod has spent the best part of the last fifteen years in a state of near-constant flux and now it appears to be being led to a timely grave by its very creators. What has the millennial technology brought for music, and why is it now best looked upon as a fond memory of our youth?

Ahead of its time, some would say, the iPod sparked the so called ‘mp3 revolution’. Many people had not yet decided if they even needed mp3s at the start of the new millennium: CDs were extremely popular, cheap and high quality forms of storing music. With only a couple of competitors’ models already on the market, initially it was an expensive, potentially risky move for a well-known computer company. Yet, the iPod became the most successful digital music player by far — how many other mp3 devices can you recall the names of?

The mp3 file changed the listener’s approach to the music album format: instead of listening in the order designed by the artist, you could instead pick and choose particular tracks to listen to at leisure. For some albums, deliberately evocative in their track order, this could completely change the listener’s experience.

As a result, there are some arguments that modern musicians are having to make tracks stand out from one another so they can make it onto a playlist for the casual listener, rather than creating a cohesive album. It is strange when a band’s ‘Outro’ appears in the middle of your workout playlist. Yet, the mp3 player eventually triumphed through the innovative iPod.

The key to the success of the iPod was in Apple’s willingness to adapt and revolutionise the market. The first generation was clunky, and only worked with Apple Mac systems, so initial sales were low and CDs stayed strong. However, by the third generation it made a name for itself after the crucial introduction of the colour screen and video playback on the iPod in 2005, and competitors soon struggled to keep up.

The iPod Classic was popular with many fans due to its huge storage space and iconic design, but Apple also brought out the Shuffle (2005), Mini/Nano (2004/5) and Touch (2007), with continuous design updates at varying successes.

Much to the dismay of its admirers who had 40,000 songs they wanted to listen to on the go, the 160 GB iPod Classic was retired in 2014, yet the others live on. But who needs that much space just for ever shrinking music files? And who on earth does not use multi-functional devices nowadays?

Diversification became a major aspect of Apple’s ethos, but there is only so long until constant modification causes the initial design to become obsolete. That point began with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007.

Initially, the iPod touch was a good compromise for parents to get their technology-hungry teenagers a device that held all of the functionality of an iPhone (except for the telephone part) with a fraction of the price tag.

Hence, this multi-functional mp3 player survived Apple’s cull, and so did the Shuffle for the opposite reason: a sole use for fractions of a music library. Some users want a cheap music player to take to the gym whilst leaving their iPhone in their locker, however with the price of the iPhone 7 starting at £599, it is hard to justify owning another portable music player.

Another key game-changer of this evolution came with the introduction of the iTunes Store in 2003, largely due to its compatibility for both Mac and Windows systems. It seems as if iTunes has slowly sapped away the physical reality of buying music, as downloads are just not as satisfying as holding onto a solid copy of an album in your hands — echoed in the resurgence in record player sales in the past 5 years.

The launch of Apple Music last year, providing a fixed price every month to own their entire database, has been argued to have changed the value of music, bringing people to question whether renting music is better than paying musicians to own it.

Apple no longer focus on their iPod range, concentrating more on the ever-evolving iPhones and iPads, and bringing out the apple watch — arguably a modern iPod shuffle stuck to your wrist which you can carry out some very limited messaging on.

So what does the future hold now we are firmly in the smartphone age, where separate portable music players are obsolete?

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