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Sunday, Oct 23, 2011 1:00pm
iPod marks 10th anniversary with a changed Apple
Apple's iPod on Sunday marked its tenth anniversary in a very different landscape. The MP3 player was unveiled on October 23, 2001 at an event in Apple's Town Hall at its Cupertino headquarters in what's now considered one of the late Steve Jobs' crowning achievements. Its first iPod, available in just a 5GB capacity with only Mac and FireWire support, reached stores on November 10 that year for $399.

At the time, many questioned the wisdom of Apple getting into portable devices and MP3 players in particular, especially in the economic plunge that followed the tragic September 11 attacks. It was still struggling as a computer maker and was introducing one of the most expensive MP3 players in the field to a limited audience. The iPod had been preceded by other MP3 players, including Rio's lineup, but many consider it the first to establish the modern template and get the experience right. Players at the time usually either used flash, and often couldn't hold more than an album's worth of music, or else used much larger hard drives and were far too big to fit in a pocket, such as the Creative Nomad Jukebox.

The iPod's momentum grew slowly during its first two years. Windows users initially didn't have any support and only got makeshift support through third-party apps like MusicMatch; 2002-era Windows users often had to get a FireWire add-on card. It wasn't until April 2003, with the launch of the third-generation iPod with USB as well as the iTunes Music Store, that iPod sales started accelerating in earnest as it both opened up the audience of Windows users and gave Mac users a place to shop for content. The launch of iTunes for Windows that fall was an even larger help since it gave Windows users the full feature set and music store.

Many consider the culmination of the iPod line to have taken place between 2003 and 2006 as the iPod made its biggest strides and still existed in a world where smartphones were in the minority. To date, Apple has sold over 304 million iPods.

Apple quickly dominated portable music players, not only overtaking competitors like Creative, Rio, and SanDisk but even the once-unassailable Sony Walkman. Launches for the iPod mini, iPod shuffle, iPod nano, and iPod touch helped cement its position by closing any price gaps. A number of companies have either had to quit the MP3 business or had to close outright, such as with Dell's failed DJ line and Rio's ultimate end in 2005. Even Microsoft, which many had presumed would dominate with the Zune based only on Windows' success, never got more than two percent of the market. Just weeks ago, Microsoft killed the Zune and planned to keep its memory alive only in Windows Phone.

The iPod is considered by many to be the spark that not only kept Apple above water financially but ultimately led to it becoming one of the most successful companies in the world. In the mid-2000s, the iPod was widely credited as producing a "halo effect," where Windows users impressed by the iPod became aware of the Mac once again and switched platforms. Apple's reputation for the iPod also helped stoke anticipation for the iPhone, which is now near the top of the smartphone market and triggered the OS and device market share collapses of Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Palm, RIM, and Sony Ericsson. Ultimately, the iPad may not have been possible without the mobile hardware expertise that first came from the iPod.

iTunes is now considered the largest source of music in the US, in part because of the iPod's dominance. While copy protection helped lock customers in, the store's success has more often been attributed to Apple creating a desirable ecosystem where listeners could easily, legally obtain music and put it on a device they would want to carry.

In 2011, the iPod itself is now on the decline as smartphones and tablets often accomplish the same while converging many other features. The signature click wheel control is still around in the iPod classic, but Apple's most popular iPods now use touchscreens: more than half of the 6.62 million iPods shipped in the summer were the iPod touch, a device where music is just one part of a larger strategy that includes apps, Internet access, and video. Apple has also regrettably lost Steve Jobs, who with Tony Fadell, Jon Rubinstein, Jonathan Ive, and other key executives in 2001 helped redefine the music industry.