The myth of the instant iPod revolution

April 10, 2007, 9:01 AM UTC

Apple (AAPL) has sold its 100 millionth iPod, and from the press coverage you’d think that from the moment Steve Jobs unveiled it nearly six years ago, it was the planet’s must-have device. But that’s not the way it happened at all.

I attended the iPod unveiling at Apple’s Cupertino campus in October 2001, and was one of the journalists lucky enough to snag a review unit. I loved the thing – in a quick review published two days later, I wrote: “Yes, it represents a technology breakthrough. It is quickly becoming my favorite music player, and elicited oohs and aahs around the office. If you recently bought a Mac, you have $400 to burn and you obsessively love music, the choice is easy. Get one.”

And that statement sums up why the iPod was not an instant hit. When the $400 device came out, it worked only with the latest Macs; Windows PC users couldn’t play. This was a calculated decision on Apple’s part – the company hadn’t decided whether it would release a Windows version at all. Some executives, I was told, viewed the iPod as mainly an accessory that might motivate more people to buy Apple desktops and laptops. Why make a Windows version and kill that incentive?

That’s why it took seven months, until Macworld New York in July 2002, for Apple to introduce a Windows version of the iPod. Even then, the Windows iPod didn’t have full gadget citizenship; rather than sync with iTunes, it worked only through MusicMatch Jukebox. For a trip down memory lane, see the press release here.

And while the iPod was selling fine, it wasn’t taking the world by storm. According to Apple’s financial statements, Apple sold just under 250,000 of them in holiday 2002, when the most affordable iPod was already just $299. A year later, when the Windows version had been out a while, Apple sold 733.000 iPods during the holiday season. A year after that, when Apple fully embraced the Windows community by partnering with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) to distribute the iPod and iTunes, sales shot up to 4.5 million.

So yes, the iPod is a brilliantly designed device that changed the digital music landscape. But it was no instant hit. Apple had to change its mindset for the iPod to have a chance at immortality – it had to abandon its Mac-centric mindset and become something more. (Apple also had to lower the price to $300 and make it available to more than just the users of a preferred platform.)

As Apple gets ready to release the $500 iPhone, which it limited to one carrier in the U.S., AT&T (T), this is important history to remember.