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20 years of the iPod (and How it Changed the World)

Updated: Dec 6, 2021

On the 23rd of October 2001, one of the greatest influences on modern music, culture, technology, the economy, and life itself was introduced.

This was the original Apple iPod and it changed many things -- some for better, some for worse.

On this anniversary, there are going to be a lot of articles that talk about the landmark music device that saved Apple and eventually lead to the modern smartphone (now just ‘phone’) as we know it. Let's focus on just a few things.

How Apple Reinvented "The Single"

How iPod reinvented the Single

Some people think that Apple invented the music single. Singles were the most popular form of music consumption for decades, but increased costs of manufacturing and transportation continued to make singles more difficult for the recording industry to justify.

This was especially true since the cost of a cassette or CD single were virtually identical to the cost of a full length album.

All this changed when you had a digital file that had little cost associated with each sale other than internet bandwidth.

The Effect of Compression on How We Hear Music

It was the cost of the outbound bandwidth from the servers -- combined with slow average household internet service, and storage costs that were still relatively high -- that caused the industry to focus on compressed digital music.

Lossy compression algorithms were used to shrink the size of music files, while at the same time altering the music experience.

Many people are oblivious to this unless they are listening to an a/b comparison with uncompressed music or are listening on headphones or a stereo that are capable of playing back the full range of music.

The quality loss is there -- and has even been tested both quantitatively and qualitatively over the years. One study, published in November 2016 by scientists at Hong Kong University, documented the adverse effects of digital compression to our emotional connection with music.

But at the time, most listeners weren't focused on how digital compression impacted quality. They were focused on access.

Ipod 20 years later - the 99 cent single

The game changer was iTunes, and a pricing model that made legally downloaded singles available for -- well -- pennies. Between 2003 and 2005, Apple sold nearly 600 million songs via iTunes, accounting for 80 percent of the legal downloads.

Through the process of selling .99 cent songs,


  • revitalized the music single,

  • normalized listening to compressed digital music, and

  • brought real weight to the idea of a micro-transactional economy.

From the iPod to iPhone to App Store

In 2019, the App Store ecosystem facilitated over half a trillion dollars in sales through this micro-transactional economy

Other companies had tried, but the iPod and iTunes made it acceptable, even desirable, to purchase multiple digital objects or services for relatively small amounts of money.

This trend from iPod into the smartphone era moved with app and in-app purchases and drove customer demand for paying for only the content that they wanted -- until streaming came along and invited people to the all-you-can-consume digital buffet.

But what about the music?

20 years later how iPod changed the world

The genius of the iPod was it allowed you to carry thousands of songs in your pocket, and listen to them in any order you wanted, randomly, or selected by algorithms.

While this felt freeing and empowering for many, it significantly impacted the consumption of the album as a complete work of musical art.

With people buying mostly singles, or making custom playlists, it was rare, especially for younger people, to listen to entire albums all the way through. For many music fans, the anticipation and foreknowledge of the next song on an album is one of the joys of listening, and this experience was all but lost.

iphone and how ipods changed the world

The smartphone further stretched our relationship with music. Unlike the iPod, most music consumed via smartphone is done while playing games, scrolling through social media, or while chatting with friends via text.

A smartphone has the tendency to relegate music to an even more subordinate place in our lives.

The iPod Paradigm Shift

Ultimately the iPod ushered in a renaissance for Apple, saving the company, and paving the way for the smartphone.

how ipods changed the world apple music

The smartphone combined with higher mobile internet speeds made subscription streaming for music viable, and it quickly eclipsed digital file sales.

Now, with the resurrection of vinyl, only subscription services generate more revenue. Apple is successful in the streaming market, but they do not hold the same market share as they did when the iPod was the dominant force in digital music.

Even though their position has dropped a notch or two, it is hard to ignore the massive paradigm shift to the music industry and to the technology fabric of our modern world that happened 20 years ago today, when the world met the iPod.


Want to have a bit of fun? Check out all the versions of the iPod ever made and tell us which ones you owned!

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