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iPod at 8: The device that changed everything

Digital audioAmid all the hubbub last week surrounding Windows 7, you may have missed another tech milestone: the iPod turned eight last Friday. Eight? Hasn't it been with us forever?

But no. On 23 Oct 2001, Steve Jobs introduced Apple's first portable music player. It only worked with Macs. There was no online store where you could download music, so you had to rip all your songs from CDs. It was chunky, held 5GB of music and cost £349 in the UK.

Yet it was still the coolest device ever introduced up to that point - what Macworld editor Jason Snell described as "the first iconic product of the 21st century". Nothing has been the same since.

Apple: transformed

Certainly not Apple. The iPod transformed Apple from the company that made computers for guys with ponytails into The Company That Knows What Consumers Want. Apple went from being the competitor Microsoft could crush if it really tried into the organisation Microsoft wishes it was.

In 2001 Apple took in around $5.4bn (about £3.3bn), nearly all of it from sales of Macs. It posted a loss of $25m. Last year, Apple raked in $36.5bn (and nearly $6bn in profits) split among iPods and iPhones, Macs, and digital content.

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No iPod? No iTunes, no iPhone, no App Store and - I believe - no Apple.

What would the world look like then? Imagine listening to music on your Creative Labs Windows Music Player 7.0 and paying £1.99 a download to the Sony-Warner-Universal Connect Music Store. The industry would still be talking about getting TV shows on a portable player, once they finally hammered out all the DRM and licensing issues. That smartphone in your pocket would be either a BlackBerry or - Lord help us - a WinMo phone. It wouldn't be pretty.

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The do-it-all gadget

Ironically, the iPod as we knew it then is essentially dead. Devices that simply play music and videos are like toasters or clock radios. From here on out, the gadgets we carry will all run apps, play games and let us surf or work from wherever we are - whether they're phones or not. You can thank Apple for that, too.

Today people turn to Apple, breathlessly waiting for what's coming next. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller makes an offhand reference to an "impending Apple slate" in a speech to his staff, and that's all it takes to get the blogosphere rolling on yet another series of Apple Tablet rumours.

You could argue the genesis of the Apple Mystique started with the Newton, or even the original Mac, but I'd disagree. The Newton was a beloved but deeply flawed product that failed in the marketplace. The Mac was barely clinging to the 3 percent of the market that wore ponytails and worked in graphic design. It was the iPod that made it all happen.

Happy 8th birthday, little pod. Enjoy your cake.

See also:

Apple iTunes app store downloads hit 2bn mark

New Apple iPod touch supports 802.11n

Apple's iPod nano gets built-in video camera

Pics: new iPod nano and iPod touch dissected

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