20 years ago Apple introduced the iPod, the perfect gateway drug to the Mac

Although it's difficult to recall, Apple 20 years ago was not a very popular company. While OS X was fascinating and the titanium PowerBook was certainly a great computer, most people think of Apple when they think of the colorful, bulbous iMac G3. Although the company was beginning to earn a reputation for making high-quality products, it was not yet established.
All that changed when Steve Jobs took the first iPod from his pocket on October 23, 2001. It was the ultimate coolest item for a whole generation of music lovers. It's no stretch to say that it revolutionized the music industry and paved the way for Apple to be the largest company in the world. It was the ultimate gateway drug for people who hadn't bought an Apple product before.

The somewhat skeptical reception of the iPod is part tech industry lore, especially Slashdots dismissal as lame compared with a Nomad MP3 Player. (Raise your hands if you have ever used a Nomad. That's what I thought. It's not as if the product was an instant success. The first iPod cost $400, and it only works with the Mac. These are two factors that limit its appeal.

These limitations gave it a lot of cachet. It was rare to see an iPod in the wild, so my Mac-owning friends were forced to answer my constant questions about how to hold it and spin it. My college roommate, who had a titanium PowerBook with an iPod, and my friend as a graphic designer (with a PowerMac G4 plus an iPod) kept raving about the quality of their hardware. I was destined to be one of those Apple switchers in the early 2000s.

Although the iPod was initially a Mac-only product at first, Apple made it available to all computer users in less than a year by introducing a Windows compatible model in summer 2002. Apple completely redesigned its iPod in less than a year and released a new version iTunes for Windows. Apple also launched the iTunes Music Store to make it easier to download legal music to an iPod. The iPod was now fully mainstream.

It is impossible to determine how many people purchased an iPod for Windows, then switched to a Mac. However, Mac sales increased from 3 million in 2003 up to 7 million by 2007. Apple's 2005 upgrade to Intel processors was likely to have helped adoption. However, the iPod halo effect was frequently cited in mid 2000s as a factor in Macs growing popularity.

The iPhone was a huge success because of its growing Mac sales and popularity as the most-loved consumer electronics device in the decade. Although the iPhone did eventually kill the iPod, Steve Jobs stated that he would rather Apple's sales be cannibalized with another Apple product than let any other company do it. This was how he justified his creation of the iPod touch. It was basically an iPhone without a smartphone.

Although I may be exaggerating the iPod to Mac evolution to iPhone, I actually lived it. In 2002, I bought a second-generation iPod. (Embarrassing admission: I also purchased four additional full-size iPods between then-2009). I received my first Mac in 2003, and my first iPhone in 2007. My first iPhone was more exciting than my first one. This was mainly because it was better than the Moto RAZR that I was using at the moment. My first iPod was a significant step up from the MP3 players that I had before. Music was the most important thing to me in my 20s.

Although it may not be unique to me, this is still true. You could trust someone who had an iPod before it was ubiquitous. They were just as passionate about music as you are. They knew how liberating it was for you to have 100 of your favorite albums at your fingertips, whenever you needed them. This might seem like a small thing in an age where Apple Music allows you to access 90 million songs from anywhere, for just 10 dollars a month. It was an amazing discovery 20 years ago.

The last iPod I bought was a 2008 iPod Classic with 120GB storage. It is about the same size as my iPhone 12 Pro. It's full to the brim with music. There are over 11,000 songs on it, many of which I carefully chose over time. Many of these songs are still in my Apple Music Library, which now has more than 25,000 songs.

While I still believe in the art and craft of creating a great album, I also have thousands of singles or a few songs from artists that catch my attention on one of the many curated playlists. I have seen the music industry change, as well. Whether that's a good thing or not is a matter for another debate, but it's clear that the iPod has made both the technology and music industries completely different. This was something that the iPod's humble introduction 20 years ago barely hint at.