The Remarkable Evolution Of The iPod

Today, Apple will likely unveil new iPods at an event in San Francisco.

The latest rumoured features: Digital cameras, which could make the iPod touch one of the most interesting point-and-shoot cameras in the world.

(Never mind that it’s already a music and video player, Internet device, and gaming gadget.)

Click here to see how the iPod has evolved over the years →

Yes, the iPod has come a long way since its launch in October, 2001. That’s when Steve Jobs showed off a device that promised “1,000 songs in your pocket” for $400. Today’s new iPod touch could promise “a digital camera and 70,000 apps in your pocket” for half the price.

The iPod could arguably be the most important product in Apple’s entire history. Over the last 8 years, Apple has made the iPod one of the biggest consumer electronics hits of all time, pushing out more than a dozen new models and selling more than 200 million units. The iPod saved Apple financially, gave the Mac a big momentum boost over the past few years, and helped finance the iPhone, Apple’s current growth story.

Today’s announcements come as the iPod shifts roles within Apple. After years as a growth driver for the company, the iPod business — as large and diverse as it is — is now shrinking. Apple warned investors on its last earnings call that it expects its traditional MP3 players — the iPod classic, nano, and shuffle — to continue to shrink in sales from here on. But it’s betting that the iPod touch — an extension of the iPhone line — can lead growth.

Indeed, today’s iPod touch is likely just the beginning of Apple’s plans for touch-controlled portable computers. It is widely expected that Apple will release a new tablet computer next year — which we think could look like a big iPod touch — designed for watching videos, reading e-books and the Web, and messing around with apps.

Hasn’t Apple done one of those before? Yes, the 1990s-era Newton — a huge flop.

What’s changed since then? Well, a new CEO, of course, and plenty of hardware and software technology. But Apple also has 8 years of incredible experience with the iPod, and now the iPhone, that could help the company succeed with touch computing this time around.

But that’s not until next year. In the meantime, we’re most interested in seeing how Apple plans to evolve the iPod family today for this holiday shopping season.

Click here to see how the iPod evolved →

Oct. 23, 2001: 1,000 Songs In Your Pocket

The first iPod was a boxy, white plastic-and-stainless steel gadget -- about the size of a deck of cards -- with a small, black-and-white screen and a FireWire port on top. And it wasn't cheap: $399 for 5 GB of capacity. But its spinning wheel interface was new and fun, and helped the iPod become a huge hit.

Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod at a press conference in Cupertino, Calif., with the slogan, '1,000 songs in your pocket.' (And a surprising 20 minutes of anti-skip technology.) The gadget launched with a goofy commercial.

Here's a video of Steve unveiling the iPod for the first time:

July 17, 2002: iPod 2G, Also For Windows

At Macworld New York, Steve Jobs unveiled the next generation of iPod players -- minor hardware updates -- and cut the price on the original model to $299.

New 10 GB ($399) and 20 GB ($499) models were introduced with touch-sensitive scroll wheels and a wired remote. It was also the first time Windows users could buy iPods, but because Apple didn't have iTunes for Windows back then, it shopped with MUSICMATCH Jukebox, an inferior third-party app later acquired by Yahoo.

April 28, 2003: iPod 3G

Apple showed off its third-generation iPods -- its first total redesign -- sporting a 'stunning enclosure that is lighter and thinner than two CDs.' The company also unveiled the iTunes music store, which went on to sell more than 1 million songs in its first week.

The solid-state, no-moving-part controls were sleek, but Apple eventually discontinued them in favour of a 'click' wheel that provided more feedback. (As an owner of this device, I found it too easy to press the wrong buttons, especially in your pocket.)

The 10 GB launched at $299, 15 GB for $399, and 30 GB for $499. In September, Apple upgraded the more expensive iPods to 20 GB and 40 GB.

Jan. 6, 2004: iPod mini

At Macworld San Francisco, Steve Jobs announced that Apple had sold 2 million iPods to date. He then unveiled the new iPod mini, which was half the size of the original iPod.

The iPod mini came in five colours -- silver, gold, pink, blue, or green anodized aluminium -- which was hugely important in making the devices fashionable. (The pink iPod was especially popular with women.)

The mini included the first new-style 'click wheel,' which Apple later rolled out to the main iPod line. It also supported USB 2.0 and FireWire. A 4 GB model -- offering '1,000 songs in your pocket' via Apple's AAC sound format -- cost $249.

Oct. 26, 2004: colour and U2

Apple unveiled its first colour iPod -- which could store up to 25,000 digital photos -- and a special black-and-red U2 iPod with a custom engraving of the band's signatures. (Its first of a couple U2 iPods.)

The partnership also scored Apple an exclusive deal to sell U2's single, 'Vertigo,' on iTunes, and a commercial featuring Bono, which aired incessantly.

Five years later, Bono is now representing two of Apple's rivals: He has appeared in promotional material for BlackBerry and is an investor in Palm via his private equity firm, Elevation Partners.

Here's that U2 iPod commercial:

Jan. 11, 2005: iPod shuffle

Who says an iPod needs a screen? Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod shuffle at Macworld, offering an MP3 player that's 'smaller and lighter than a pack of gum and costs less than $100.' Apple's slogans included 'Life is random,' celebrating that you ideally wouldn't even want to control which song you heard next when you were exercising.

The first iPod shuffle plugged right into a USB drive, and included 512 MB of storage (120 songs) for $99 and 1 GB (240 songs) for $149. It shipped with a lanyard neck cord that made the iPod shuffle wearable.

Sept. 7, 2005: iPod nano

Apple's iPod line continues to get thinner, and the company's marketing department keeps coming up with new objects to compare iPods to. This time, it's 'thinner than a standard #2 pencil.'

The nano isn't just Apple's smallest iPod with a screen ever -- it boasts its smallest capacity for an iPod with a screen, ever, too: Just 2 GB for $199, and 4 GB for $249. At the time, Apple was going against the grain -- conventional wisdom suggests that you needed more capacity to sell, not less.

But in reality, most people -- the mainstream consumers the nano was pointed at -- didn't have MP3 libraries larger than a few gigabytes that they needed to have with them at a time. And they loved the nano's size and price tag.

Oct. 12, 2005: iPod video

After previously snoring at portable video players, Steve Jobs finally announced one of his own. The video iPod could hold up to 150 hours of video -- conveniently available from the iTunes store -- and had a gorgeous, high-resolution display.

But Apple conveniently left the video-playback battery life off its press release, because it was terrible -- a two-hour movie was a stretch.

This was the first full-size, non-U2 iPod to come in another colour -- shiny black.

May 23, 2006: Nike+iPod

Apple's Nike+iPod partnership with Nike was one of the first extensions of Apple's portable gadgets as a platform for non-music software. Special Nike shoes talked to an iPod nano -- outfitted with a special wireless receiver -- and hooked in to a Nike Web service.

Tour de France star Lance Armstrong and marathon runner Paula Radcliffe attended the launch event, which took place in New York.

Sept. 12, 2006: iPod updates, Hollywood movies

During its annual now-September iPod refresh, Steve Jobs showed off this new, 'wearable' iPod shuffle; a new video iPod with longer viewing time, and a new iPod nano with an aluminium finish.

Apple also unveiled iTunes 7, with 'cover flow' user interface -- now central to the iPhone experience -- and Hollywood movies. Disney was the first studio to participate, offering 75 movies in near-DVD quality.

Fifth-generation iPods could also play games: Tetris, Pac-Man, etc. -- another precursor to the iPhone and iPod touch app platform that would be a huge hit two years later.

Jan. 9, 2007: iPhone

Apple's new best iPod wasn't an iPod at all, but the iPhone, Apple's first phone. Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone at Macworld in San Francisco to a booming audience.

The widescreen, touch-controlled iPhone was the first iPod (with a screen) without a scroll wheel, but had a new series of innovative touch controls, including 'swiping' through menus.

This also offered, obviously, a much better video viewing experience.

Sept. 5, 2007: iPod touch, 'Fat nano'

During Apple's September iPod event, Steve Jobs announced the iPod touch -- basically, an iPhone without the phone features -- and new iPod nanos and the 'classic.'

The new 'fat nano' was shorter and wider than previous models, offering a colour screen for video.

The most controversial part of this event was when Apple announced $200 price cuts to the iPhone, which infuriated early adopters.

July 11, 2008: App Store

With the '2.0' iPod touch software and new App Store, the iPod touch wasn't just an MP3 player with a Web browser. It was Apple's new wi-fi mobile computing platform.

And it's become a huge hit, especially for casual gaming. iPod touch users download 18 apps per month, on average, versus 10 for iPhone users, according to mobile ad network AdMob.

Sept. 9, 2008: iPod refreshes

During its annual September iPod refresh, Apple unveiled new iPod nanos and an updated iPod touch.

The new nanos returned to their familiar, skinny design, as -- thanks to the iPhone -- people were now accustomed to the idea of turning their gadget sideways to watch video.

Mar. 11, 2009: iPod shuffle, no buttons

In early 2009, when Steve Jobs was away on medical leave, Apple announced a new iPod shuffle even smaller than previous ones.

This new shuffle was extra controversial, however, because it shipped without play/pause/rewind/fast forward buttons. Instead, users are required to use the controls on Apple's iPod earbuds. Which means they need to use Apple earbuds.

Apple still sells the old shuffle, suggesting that the new one may be unpopular.

The iPod's Inevitable Decline

After an amazing run, the iPod is now in decline, with sales shrinking year-over-year. (The good news is that the iPhone has taken off where the iPod left off, driving huge growth in Apple's portable business.)

But now Apple must manage its legacy iPod business as a shrinking one, while pushing the iPod touch (and iPhone) ahead as its portable growth stories. Eventually, this will mean discontinuation of the iPod classic line, and in the more distant future, the nano and shuffle.

And it will also mean an expansion of the touch line. The next new gadget could be a super-size iPod touch, expected next year. (See this chart larger here.)

Sept. 9, 2009: iPod nano with video

Updated. Steve Jobs returned to the stage after his medical leave, updating the iPod line again. The iPod nano did receive a video camera, as rumoured, but the iPod touch did not -- a disappointment. Instead, would-be iPod touch buyers will have to settle for price cuts and a faster set of guts inside the gadget.

Apple also added a FM tuner to the iPod nano and cut the price on the iPod shuffle, adding new colour options.

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