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Opinion

As Apple discontinues the iPod, here are three lessons it taught us about disruption 

It wasn’t the first MP3 player – but it was the first to fit 1,000 songs in your pocket

If we go by the 2015 biopic, Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO invented the iPod as a way to reconnect with his illegitimate daughter, Lisa. “I’m gonna put a 1,000 songs in your pocket,” Michael Fassbender (playing a roll-necked Jobs) says at the end of the movie. 

He didn’t do this in real life, director Danny Boyle was merely looking for a cathartic ending. In reality, Jobs tasked a man called Jon Rubinstein to develop an MP3 player sometime in the late 1990s. By then MP3 players were everywhere and fairly old hat, but at Apple, someone – not necessarily Jobs – spotted a place in the market for a version of that invention that could have more storage capacity but with a much smaller form factor. To say Apple was successful is an understatement; the iPod is over 20 years old and, bizarrely, seen by many as the first of its kind. 

As of May 2022, it’s no more. Apple has discontinued all of its iPod products and will sell them “while stocks last”. Its demise, however, does give us an opportunity to reflect on a very strong example of technological disruption. A disruptor is a thing or event that basically changes its industry or even multiple industries. We could argue that MP3 players are the disruptor here, but ‘streaming’ actually took off in the early 00s, when Apple got in on the game. 

Almost all tech companies are in it to disrupt; the dream is to change the world – move fast and break things, they say. But the majority can only dream about having the impact that Apple and Jobs had. In fact, these companies should take notes from the history of the iPod and its three valuable lessons on disruption. 

Lesson one: You don’t need to be first, you just need to do it better

As mentioned, MP3 players were already widely used by 2001 when Apple launched its first iPod, but they were either tiny boxes that held about 30mins’ worth of songs (not even an album’s worth) or great chunky blocks, such as the Rio Nomad which had a laptop-sized hard drive. The Nomad could hold 1,000 songs, to be fair, but it only fitted in a clown's pocket.

In some ways, this part of the iPod story is luck, but it’s true they were also hunting for it. On a visit to the Toshiba labs in Japan, Rubinstein was introduced to a 1.8in hard drive prototype that could hold 5GB of data, which is roughly 1,000 songs. Rubinstein and Jobs negotiated a deal with Toshiba to have exclusive access to the hard drives, solving their initial problem of how to fit 1,000 songs in a pocket. 

Lessons two: Purpose before product

The beauty of this, for Apple at least, is that Toshiba’s engineers didn’t exactly know what they were going to do with the tiny hard drives. This leads to the second lesson of the iPod: start with the customer experience and work backwards. That basically means Apple didn’t make an iPod and then wonder who they could sell it to. The best case in point is iTunes – the platform from and onto which you download music – which was launched in January 2001, ten months before the iPod. 

“One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology,” Jobs said, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple CEO. “You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to sell it… And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer… Where can we take the customer?’ Not starting with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how we’re going to market that.'”

Lesson three: Keep it simple

When it did come time to talk to the engineers, the third great lesson was put to test – maintaining simplicity. The very first model had no on/off switch, which Jobs argued for, much to his colleague's dismay. But his point was justified; the device didn’t need one as it would go to sleep when not in use and wake when any of its buttons were touched. Similarly, its connection with iTunes and Macs also sought to simplify its use. 

“In order to make the iPod really easy to use – and this took a lot of arguing on my part – we needed to limit what the device itself would do,” Jobs said. “Instead, we put that functionality in iTunes on the computer. For example, we made it so you couldn’t make playlists using the device. You made playlists on iTunes, and then you synced with the device. That was controversial. But what made the Rio and other devices so brain-dead was that they were complicated. They had to do things like make playlists because they weren’t integrated with the jukebox software on your computer.”

In essence, the iTunes element is ultimately the reason the iPod went on to be such a success and also a key foundation of the iPhone, which came later in the decade. That too is seen as a disruptive technology, but it might not even have been born, had it not been for the classic iPod. 

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