Retro Apple: iPod – A Comprehensive Look From Then Until Now

An Apple A1059 4th-Generation "Click Wheel" iPod at left with an iPhone XS Max mockup at left. Photo by Steve Sande
An Apple A1059 4th-Generation “Click Wheel” iPod at left with an iPhone XS Max mockup at left. Photo by Steve Sande

Apple’s road to success is paved with many products that no longer exist. Some have simply become redundant thanks to newer products with more functionality, while others were unceremoniously dumped from the Apple product line. So far in this Retro Apple series, we’ve looked at one software product — HyperCard — as well as two pieces of hardware — the QuickTake 100 Digital Camera and the Newton MessagePad 2100.  Today we’ll look at a wildly successful Apple product that is still being sold, but in a much different format — the iPod

Genesis of the iPod

Like many Apple products, the iPod wasn’t the first product of its type to market, but it quickly dominated the market. Digital music players were a logical outgrowth of the Sony Walkman cassette player, which was a compact, battery-powered cassette tape player that came with a pair of wired headphones. While the Walkman and its competitors could simply play one album at a time, digital music players used either flash RAM or a small hard disk to store many songs. All of the devices needed to be connected to a computer (PC or Mac) to download music. 

The first digital music players I remember were the Diamond Rio (1998, with 32MB of storage) and the Creative Labs NOMAD Jukebox (2000, with a 6GB microdrive). I resisted the temptation of buying the Diamond Rio, but when the NOMAD appeared, I just had to get one (see photo below).

A Creative Labs NOMAD Jukebox, the dismal state-of-the-art in digital music players a year before the iPod appeared
A Creative Labs NOMAD Jukebox, the dismal state-of-the-art in digital music players a year before the iPod appeared

Frankly, it was horrible. In the first place, it wasn’t Mac-compatible, so I had to use a Windows machine to rip CDs and move the music to the NOMAD Jukebox. Even worse was the built-in user interface. By 2000, I had been using graphical user interfaces for 16 years (with the Mac and Windows), and I honestly think that the NOMAD’s UI was one of the worst I’ve ever seen.  I recall accidentally erasing songs when I was trying to play them, frequently erasing full albums! 

Apple had discontinued the Newton MessagePad by the time work began on the iPod; the Newton platform was never used as a music player. Seeing public interest in personal media players like the Walkman and the first digital devices, Steve Jobs ordered his hardware engineering chief Jon Rubenstein to build a team to design a product. 

The first Apple media player design came together quickly. With engineers like Tony Fadell and Michael Dhuey working on the electronics, and Apple legend Jony Ive working on the design, the team was able to get the product to market within a year.

It helped that Rubenstein had seen a tiny Toshiba hard drive that would be perfect for a digital music player, and he purchased the rights to the drive for Apple. He had also envisioned how the screen, battery, and other components would work together. 

The 1958 Braun T3 Transistor Radio, with a design that foreshadowed the first iPod "Classic"
The 1958 Braun T3 Transistor Radio, with a design that foreshadowed the first iPod “Classic”

Jony Ive had a relatively easy task. The external design of the first iPod borrowed heavily from the Braun T3 transistor radio designed by Dieter Rams in 1958 (see image above), and the “wheel” used to navigate the iPod user interface was based on the wheel control on the Bang & Olufsen BeoCom 1 cordless phone (image below). Unsurprisingly, Jony Ive counts Rams as a leading influence on his design sensibilities.

The first iPod borrowed the mechanical wheel control design on the Bang & Olufsen Beocom 1 cordless phone
The first iPod borrowed the mechanical wheel control design on the Bang & Olufsen Beocom 1 cordless phone

The operating system and UI of the first iPod came together quickly, with Apple purchasing bits and pieces from PortalPlayer and another company called Pixo. The OS ran on PortalPlayer’s reference platform, which used two ARM cores (once again, early Apple Silicon!), and was written in the C++ programming language. 

While it was being designed, the iPod was simply called “P68” or “Dulcimer” in-house. The name iPod came from a freelance copywriter by the name of Vinny Chieco, who saw a prototype and immediately thought of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. He saw a parallel between the spaceship Discovery with its gleaming white space pods used for EVAs (“open the pod bay door, Hal”), and the computer connected to the gleaming white digital music player. 

The first iPod

The first iPod model was released on October 23, 2001. It was Mac-only to begin with; Jobs rightly assumed that people would be so enthralled with the iPod that they would purchase Macs in order to load them up with music. That first device had a 5GB hard drive built-in that was touted to “put 1,000 songs in your pocket”, and came with the now-iconic white earbuds that were featured in the famous silhouette ads (see example below). 

The initial ads featured a dancing actor, but when people referred to him as an “iClod”, advertising agency Chiat/Day came up with the idea of using dancers silhouetted against a bright color background, with the white iPod and earphones being visible. The ads were everywhere; on billboards, in magazines, on TV, painted on trains and buildings. Quickly, people came to realize that if you were wearing white headphones, you had an iPod and you were a cool person!

Somehow I resisted the advertising until the 20GB second-generation model came out in July of 2002. I was working for IBM at the time, and although I had a few Macs at home, I was doing a lot of work with Windows 2000. The second-generation iPod could connect to PCs via FireWire and a Windows app called MusicMatch. I remember ripping CDs with MusicMatch for days before the second-generation iPod was available, and when I finally bought my iPod, I hooked it up to my PC and quickly dumped about 10GB of music onto it. I was enthralled with how good the sound quality was and also how easy the iPod UI was to figure out. 

How good was the iPod UI? I remember handing my iPod to people who had never seen one before, and they could figure out how to search for songs, artists, or albums, then play them in minutes — with no training or coaching by me!

Generations

There were a lot of iPod models, with each model going through at least two or three generations. I won’t go through each of the models and generations — instead, here’s a link to a Wikipedia page showing the features of each type of iPod ever made

There’s only one iPod still being sold — the iPod touch. Take the cellular modem and Phone app out of an iPhone, and that’s what the iPhone Touch is. The last “Classic” iPod models were taken off the market in 2014.

Image showing (left to right) a color display 80GB iPod Video, a 4th-generation 20GB iPod Classic with monochrome display, a 4GB iPad Mini, a Product(RED) 2nd-generation iPad Nano, and a 1GB 2nd-generation iPod Shuffle. Photo CC BY-SA 2.0, Chris Harrison
Image showing (left to right) a color display 80GB iPod Video, a 4th-generation 20GB iPod Classic with monochrome display, a 4GB iPad Mini, a Product(RED) 2nd-generation iPad Nano, and a 1GB 2nd-generation iPod Shuffle. Photo CC BY-SA 2.0, Chris Harrison

Beyond the Music: Doing More With Your iPod

For a lot of my life, I have been a writer. Back in 1986, I began writing “online” when I ran a Bulletin Board System for Mac and Apple IIGS users, but other than some scholarly papers, I hadn’t published a book. That changed in 2005 when I decided to write a book I called “Beyond the Music: Doing More with your iPod”. It was rather popular, and I ended up pitching the book to Take Control Books, which at the time was run by TidBITS publishers Adam and Tonya Engst. 

My book never made the best-seller list, but it was a popular iPod reference in 2007
My book never made the best-seller list, but it was a popular iPod reference in 2007

After some editing work and a title change, the book was sold for a time by Take Control Books both in ebook and printed formats (see image above). I also wrote a number of other ebooks for Take Control, then began writing for other publishers as well. Although I was running some personal websites at the time, those writing gigs also jump-started my online writing career at The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW.com), which was absorbed by sister site Engadget in 2015. 

So, what was the book about? While most people were using iPods just for listening to music, Apple had been adding some features to the iPod operating system. I told people how to use the “Personal Digital Assistant” (PDA) features on the iPod, including the calendar and to-do lists, the contact list, the clock — with a sleep timer and alarm clock, as well as a world clock and stopwatch for more advanced iPods — and a voice recorder (with a third-party microphone). 

Since the iPod was essentially a hard disk drive with a fast (for the time) FireWire or USB connection, I showed people how to use their music player as a backup drive. The iPod could also be used as an emergency startup drive for a Mac.

Still not enough uses for an iPod? I got into reading RSS feeds and email on the device, as well as text documents, driving directions, text-based ebooks, Word files, Excel files, PDFs, and more. 

As the later iPods gained color screens, I felt it was a good idea to talk about transferring photos to the iPod (both for viewing and storage), and moving digital maps to the iPod. 

Of course, two staples of our digital life — podcasts and audiobooks — were covered in the book, as well as how to use an iPod to run presentations and watch videos. Remember, this was all pre-iPhone! 

Nike had a device called the iPod Sport Kit that connected to an iPod nano and received running info from a tiny transmitter that was placed into the sole of specific Nike shoes. People were using the Nike+ iPod Sport Kit in 2006, the year before the iPhone came out and well before the Apple Watch appeared. It’s considered to be the first “connected sports” device (see box image below).

The Nike+ iPod Sport Kit was the first connected sports device
The Nike+ iPod Sport Kit was the first connected sports device
The iPod Linux logo
The iPod Linux logo

The craziest thing I found to do with an iPod was to turn it into a Linux-based portable computer! Although this project died when the iPhone came out, you can still download the installer and documentation online

Of course, most iPods after the first generation had built-in games — Brick, Music Quiz, Parachute, and Solitaire. The 5th generation iPod brought some amazing games to the device that could be purchased through iTunes; one of those is still available as a fun and free Apple game for the iPhone — Texas Hold ‘em Poker

The Legacy of the iPod

The iPod was largely responsible for the Phoenix-like rise of Apple from the ashes of the 1990s. Many people were introduced to the company’s products when they bought an iPod and liked what they saw — a product that was well-designed and constructed. 

By the time the iPhone arrived on the scene in 2007, consumers were equating Apple with good quality products and with music. iTunes had expanded from a Mac-only product to one that also ran on Windows, and when the iTunes Store appeared in April of 2003, it revolutionized the sale of online media that has now culminated in the App Stores and Apple Music. 

Like the Newton, the iPod used ARM-based chips that have evolved in the Apple Silicon that will soon be used in all Apple products from the tiny AirPods to the most powerful Macs. 

The search for better earbuds led from the classic buds to the 2012 EarPods (which were still included with the iPhone 11 series), then to the purchase of Beats Electronics by Apple in 2014, and the introduction of AirPods in 2016.

The iPod also had an impact on the connectivity of devices. The FireWire connection of early iPods was soon replaced with the USB- or FireWire-based, Apple-designed 30-pin Dock Connector in 2003, which was superseded by the USB-based Lightning connector in 2014. Soon, we may see that supplanted by USB-C, which is already being used with Macs and the iPad Pro.

Apple executives have always said that the music is in the company’s DNA, and no product typified that statement more than the iPod. 

Related: Retro Apple Postscript: How an iPod Saved My Life

Steve Sande
the authorSteve Sande
Contributing Author
Steve is the publisher of Apple World Today, a website providing news, reviews and how-tos for the world of Apple, as well as an author on The Rocket Yard. He's an avid photographer, an FAA-licensed drone pilot, and a really bad guitarist.
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5 Comments

  • In October 2001, I was laid off from my job of 20 years. I’d also been a Mac user all my life. I saw the ad for the iPod in October, didn’t understand exactly what the heck it was (aware of the mp3 devices but didn’t pay attention), thought, “It’s Apple. I need a pick-me-up now that I lost my job and I’m sure I’ll like it.” Well…when I got it, it took me 10 minutes to understand what it could do. I still have it, don’t use it, have a 160GB (discontinued) version I use presently. I still love it.

  • I have several Classic iPods that I use all the time. I have souped these up with oversized batteries and solid-state hard drive’s. On a full charge, I can go on a 3 week vacation without having to charge them. I love having a device whose ONLY purpose is to play music.

    I’m happy to report that the latest version of Music running on Catalina synchronize my iPods perfectly.

    If it were up to me, Apple will update the iPod Classic with a modern connector and solid-state drive technology. I think they would sell no small number of them.

    • I miss the iPod. It is now just a re-purposed, old iPhone. Too large and inconvenient to be really useful at all. What a shame that Apple has abandoned the market they created. All of my iPods ended up being stolen and now I can’t replace them. Come on Apple, get with it! Maybe the ghost of Steve Jobs will start haunting Tim Apple…

    • Where do you get instructions and parts to do this I have 2 ,1 has bad click wheel, Sirius Rario angers me. Please tell me who,what and where, and how might be nice to get them both useable to max standards!
      Thanks,
      dsk