A look back at the iPod Classic: Where it all began…

In my professional life as a journalist, I only wrote one rumour story for which sourcing was truly sketchy. Generally my rule is this: Write what you know to be true in the moment based on the most reliable - and identified, meaning we directly communicated - sources available. But I didn't feel confident about my 17 October, 2001 iPod story. My source (only one) confirmed that six days later Apple would unveil a "digital music device", but it wasn't clear what that meant, something the story reflects.

I reminisce about iPod because it's gone. CNET, where I worked when writing about the mystery music device, reported the device's disappearance earlier this week. The link for iPod Classic now goes to iPod Touch, and the music player is no longer sold at Apple Store Online - not even refurbished.

The extended name, adopted in 2007, is appropriate. The original iPod is a "classic". It is one of four foundational products released in 2001 that still drive everything Apple in 2014. Music changed the fruit-logo company long before iPhone established the world's largest tech company. iPod is part of the story.

Better late than never

iPod represents something special about co-founder Steve Jobs and his leadership team, which included Tim Cook, Jony Ive, and Phil Schiller, at the Millennial's start. Jobs turned a misjudgment into something special. Apple was a latecomer to music. Big time.

The year before launching iPod, Apple continued its bet on personal movies - all while Windows PC manufacturers looked to music, as they capitalised on the Napster craze. In the last days of July 2000, I looked over new iMacs at CompUSA and thought: "I wouldn't buy one for my mother".

That was a gut reaction that made sense when I reflected about it over a weekend. No Mac shipped with CD-RW drives or music-ripping software. I consulted analysts and wrote a news story on 2 August, 2000: "Apple misses the tune on CD-RW drives". Excerpt:

Apple, which is often credited for making style and design a factor in PC purchasing, has not been able to effectively capitalise on one of the hottest options for PCs today: The CD-RW drive...

Whoa, did that story, like many others, generate reaction among the Apple faithful. There were no popular tech bloggers in 2000, just journalists like me, and most news sites didn't yet have public comments. Readers responded by email, and I heard from them. Some examples follow.

Professional Mac user:

I always find it funny when anti-Apple people invent reasons to knock them. This one has got to be the funniest yet. Now Apple is taking criticism for not encouraging the act of illegally pirating music. What a laugh! Their inclusion of a DVD-ROM drive, iMovie software, and FireWire connectivity is a definite cutting edge strategy. Anyone who doesn't recognise this is clearly impaired.

General Mac user:

I seriously doubt if Apple missed the boat or anything on the CD-RW craze. Soon CDs will go the way of the 'floptical' drive and nobody will have anything but DVD-RAM drives (more data — less space) and they may even get into the new field of desktop video like I have. After all, what would you rather have in YOUR computer. An old CD-RW that takes forever to use or a state of the art DVD-RAM????

By December 2000, just four months later, Apple already looked beyond DVD-RAM to DVD-RW, which compatibility better fit home and professional movie discs. The company shipped the first CD-RW compatible, DVD-R SuperDrive on 19 February 2001.

Mac dealer:

Just want to say you may have missed the tune. iMacs have no cooling fans, which make them very quiet. CD burners run warm when used and most require a cooling fan. When you don't have a fan in the machine you have to use an external device and I don't think Apple is ready to go into the CD-RW business when they have well established manufacturers with proven quality products that are compatible with the iMac. I think Apple has a sweet tune and computer buyers are beginning to get it. Try it.

Apple released iMacs with CD-RW drives and iTunes on 2 February , 2001, just six months after the Mac dealer gave the heat excuse.

Say, does anything about the tone of these comments ring familiar with blog or news story comments you might read today?

Back on topic. Soon after I posted the "misses the tune" story, Apple bought SoundJam - the foundation for iTunes, which launched in January 2001. Jobs admitted Apple missed out and fabulously changed direction, for which I take no credit. I only express that because some Apple cultist will accuse me of claiming credit.

Truly Classic

Apple's musical turnabout is bigger than iTunes and CD burners. Macworld's "The Birth of the iPod" is a definitive history that explains how Apple developed the device in just a matter of months - a fantastically short time, particularly considering the success.

Earlier this week, during the Apple Watch media event, CEO Tim Cook emphasised the importance of breakthrough user interfaces for new product categories. He identified them for three products, and all share one thing in common: Touch. That's mouse for the Mac; click/scroll wheel for iPod; and capacitive, multitouch screen for iPhone. But Cook over-simplifiesregarding iPod. Simple sync is the killer UX (user-experience) feature.

Apple's DVD movie strategy meant people either made or bought their own movies. CD burners and iTunes capitalised on what music consumers already had, whether downloaded illegally or purchased discs. iPod gave users a way to carry the content they already owned with them. The ease of ripping to and organising in iTunes was step one. The second step mattered more. To sync music, users plugged their iPod into the computer. Competing devices used cumbersome, user-unfriendly, multi-step wizards that didn't work as well.

Read more: The day the music died: Apple discontinues the classic iPod

Something I will discuss further in a future post: The original iPod was well-balanced. There was an excellent balance of features (click/scroll wheel, 5GB hard drive, battery life, and sync) to benefits (simple navigation, 1,000 song storage, lots of listening time, and drop-dead easy transfer to device). Then there was good physical balance - how the device felt and could be used in the hand.

Competitors that tacked on more features, like FM radios, didn't get the simplicity that made iPod so appealing.

Risky business

I met with Apple's PR team in a Washington D.C. hotel for an official briefing soon after iPod's launch. I received a review unit and bag of 20 CDs - as Apple discouraged music theft but wanted journalists to get the full user experience.

The meeting took place in the shadow of terrorist attacks that occurred 13 years ago. One of the planes struck The Pentagon, which wasn't that far away. There was a grim mood in the area and around the country, which created poor receptive marketing atmosphere for launching anything.

But Apple assumed another risk - entering a new product category for which it had no prior experience and during financial hardship. Recession gripped the United States, and Apple had suffered share price and quarterly revenue setbacks as a result.

For many reasons, Jobs and Company defied corporate sanity by bringing iPod to market. But as they say, no risk, no reward.

I used the original-style iPod, which gained the "Classic" moniker with the sixth-generation release, until Jobs unveiled the nano in September 2005. The first iPod nano, for which some griped easily scratched, is to this day my favourite music player. The device was finely-balanced, felt and looked good, and delivered superb UX. Every nano that followed took something away from the original.

These days, like many other people, I listen to music on my smartphone. But I remember where it all began - on an autumn day, not long before Halloween in 2001.

Read more: The Apple Mac's 30th anniversary: Marking three decades of tech disruption

Image Credit: FHKE