1,000 Songs In Your Pocket
In less than a decade, “iPod” has become nearly synonymous with the digital music player, an extraordinary accomplishment shared by only a handful of other consumer brands—such as Band-Aid, Kleenex, and Frigidaire—whose trademarked names have come to describe a generic product.
Yet the influence of Apple’s popular music player extends well beyond the more than 220 million sold since its introduction in fall 2001. Ten months before that, Apple unveiled iTunes, revolutionary software combining personal music management with a legal online digital music store. iTunes legitimized downloading as a way to sell music legally, thereby changing the way music is purchased. By April 2008, Apple had supplanted Walmart to become the nation’s leading music retailer, set standards for selling movies and TV shows online, and created the concept of short downloadable informational and amateur videos known as podcasts. Apple’s all-encompassing iPod/iTunes ecosystem has become a model for other hardware/content combinations, such as the emerging e-book business.
Despite its domination of the market, Apple neither invented the digital music player nor music management software.
Music first went digital with the compact disc in 1982. As the digital communication infrastructure emerged in the 1980s and the Internet and then the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, many realized the potentially huge advantages of being able to transfer digital music files through cyberspace. But in their unadulterated digital form, a typical three-minute pop song could be 50 megabytes (MB), a large and unwieldly file at a time when download speeds were measured in kbps, memory cost around $1 a megabyte (compared to around 20 cents a gigabyte today), and a typical personal computer hard drive topped out at around 10–15 gigabytes, only a hundreth of what’s available today. For digital music downloads to become viable, the files had to be compressed.
In the mid-1980s Deutsche Telecom began deployment of the integrated services digital network (ISDN), a pioneering data communications standard using standard phone lines in Europe. The phone conglomerate asked the fellow German Fraunhofer Institute to look into deploying high-quality, low-bit-rate audio coding over these digital lines. After several years, Fraunhofer researchers were able to shrink music files down to a twelfth of their original size without appreciable sonic quality loss. In 1992 their compression algorithm was integrated into the new Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) 1 specification and renamed MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3, shortened to MP3.
At first, users could only play the newly encoded MP3 music files, ripped from CDs, on their PCs. The first PC-based software MP3 player, the AMP MP3 Playback Engine, was developed by Croatian programmer Tomislav Uzelac of the University of Zagreb in 1997. A year later two students at the University of Utah, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev, ported AMP to Windows to create Winamp, which boosted the visibility of MP3 to mainstream PC users.
In mid-1998, a four-man Korean company called SaeHan Information Systems started selling a $600 portable digital music player named MPMan. More of an expensive prototype than a commercially viable product, MPMan sold only around 500 units. But it drew the attention of David Watkins, the general manager and vice president of the audio group at Diamond Multimedia in San Jose, California.
Watkins hired the four Korean engineers to design software while Diamond handled the hardware design on what would become the Rio PMP300, the first commercially successful solid-state digital music player. It used a 32 MB removable flash memory card to store up to a dozen MP3 music tracks, and it didn’t skip like a portable CD player or require the insertion of a clunky tape or disc. In the first year after its November 1998 introduction, Rio sold more than 400,000 of the units at $200 a piece.
Watkins understood that Rio’s continued viability against expected competition and legal threats from the recording industry hinged on creating a hardware/content ecosystem. The music industry had not yet embraced the idea of digital music downloads and was suing anyone who did—including Rio. But Watkins could not convince management of his idea of combining the PMP300 with music management software and legal online music sales. Rio’s lack of foresight provided Apple’s opportunity.
In the last two decades of the 20th century, “portable music” meant either using a cassette tape with 20 to 30 tracks in a Walkman, or a bulky standalone CD player containing digital buffers and physical shock absorbers to reduce skipping. After the Rio PMP300 proved popular, several other companies brought out MP3 players, but they remained bulky and required an engineering degree and the patience of Job to load songs into them.
Apple’s first step toward cornering the MP3 market came in late 2000, when it bought the rights to the SoundJamMP music player and its music management software. With the help of SoundJamMP’s developers and deals forged with recording labels, Apple redesigned the software and created iTunes, which was unveiled in January 2001. Users now could legally download songs for 99 cents and albums for $9.99.
Apple introduced the first iPod on November 10, 2001. Priced at $399, the stylish white player was smaller than a deck of playing cards and included a 5 GB hard drive—enough to put “1,000 songs in your pocket.” In less than 18 months, Apple sold more than a million iPods. The company’s white stick earbuds became a status symbol.