This week Apple announced that it would be discontinuing the iPod Touch, its last product to be called the iPod. More than 20 years after the original iPod was announced and over a decade in the iPhone’s shadow, it can be hard to recall just how important the device was to Apple. But the music player helped define the company we know today — and was a major factor in bringing it back from the brink of ruin.
The story of Apple’s comeback was told over and over again until it was mythologized, so I’ll try to keep it short. The 1990s were not good for the company and almost led to bankruptcy. Around the turn of the century, however, things began to change: the iMac G3 sold well and Apple’s revenues began to grow again. But while the original iMac stabilized Apple as a company, Apple was still a niche player when it came to the overall consumer electronics market.
Enter iPod. In October 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the now legendary portable music player that synced to your Mac via FireWire and stored 1,000 MP3 songs on a 5GB hard drive. It wasn’t the first portable media player, but one of the first commercials for the iPod (which featured lots of dancing but no silhouettes) immediately showed why you wanted one: With just a few clicks, you could take over your computer’s music library on the go with one device that fits in your pocket.
iPod sales exploded over the next few years as Apple introduced more models and added Windows support. According to Statista, Apple sold around 400,000 iPods in 2002. By 2006, Apple was selling 39 million of these a year. The iPod had quickly surpassed the Mac in terms of units sold, reached a far wider audience and, crucially, introduced the general public to Apple as a company that makes products you carry around in your pocket.
And sales kept growing. According to Statista, the company would sell over 51 million in 2007. But that was the year Apple unveiled its next big thing: the iPhone.
The iPod dwarfed the iPhone announcement – so much so that Steve Jobs was the first to describe the smartphone as “a widescreen iPod with touch controls.” It was an apt comparison since the iPhone built on many of the concepts introduced by the iPod.
Let’s start with the obvious: When the iPhone first came out, you had to sync it with iTunes to activate and set it up. Jobs used this as a selling point when introducing it, saying that iPod owners would already know how to set up their phone and would likely already have their data in iTunes. And after you’ve set up the phone, you’ll see an app called iPod on it – its icon is a classic device decorated with a scroll wheel.
Then there’s the App Store, which defined the iPhone even though it wasn’t even one of its original features. When it launched in 2008, Apple already had half a decade of experience building and maintaining a digital storefront. It had launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003 to buy digital music for your then new third generation iPod. And Apple began selling movies on iTunes in 2006 as it built its infrastructure for the age of portable media consumption. The iPhone was a revolution in many ways, but it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like without the iPod.
Of course, the iPod doesn’t deserve everything that made the iPhone popular. It had Games, but they weren’t a major selling point until the iPod Touch. And despite Steve Jobs’ joke during the iPhone announcement, the click wheel has largely been usurped by the touchscreen despite many people’s fond memories of the input device.
While the iPod lived on for years after the iPhone’s introduction (even the Nano and the Shuffle lingered for a decade or so after iOS came out), its days as what Apple was known for were numbered. Apple’s iPod sales record was in the first quarter of 2009 – consumers bought 23 million of them. Back then it was second generation Shuffles, first and second generation iPod Touches, fourth generation Nanos and the iPod Classic.
The iPod would never reach those heights again. As iPhone sales took off like a rocket, fewer and fewer people bought iPods. In 2010, the iPad (which Apple designed as a touchscreen device In front it came up with the idea for the iPhone) was introduced. Within two years it was also selling the iPod at its peak. The iPod Touch was a good device if you wanted an iPhone without a phone—but for most people, the iPad fitted that mold even better.
The importance of the iPod at Apple continued to decline over the next decade. Until 2015, Apple’s earnings reports tucked the iPod into an “Other Products” category with the Apple TV, Apple Watch, Beats, and “Apple-branded and third-party accessories.” The iPod Classic, the last in the line to start with the original iPod, was discontinued in 2014. The iPod Nano and Shuffle would follow next in 2017, and the iPod Touch finally dropped in 2022.
It’s hard to imagine that Apple has sold many seventh-generation iPod Touch over the last few years, but there are bound to be a few people who will miss it – when I went to my local Apple Store to buy one on Tuesday, The staff told me I was far from the first person to do this when they heard the news that it was discontinued. Starting at $199 for a 32GB model, it was the cheapest iOS device you could buy new from Apple. That honor now falls to the entry-level iPad, which starts at $329 for a 64GB model. The Touch was also the last easily portable device Apple sold with (tell me now) a headphone jack.
Though the iPod may be gone, its legacy lives on. You can draw many lines from the iPod range to what makes Apple successful today – music is still a big part of its identity, with both its streaming service and the amazingly popular AirPod range. Apple loved video so much it named an entire iPod model after it; now it has Apple TV Plus and is marketing the iPhone for its video prowess. And remember when people wore the square touchscreen iPod Nanos as a watch?
But while services, wearables, and accessories are important to Apple, the iPhone is still by far its biggest revenue driver. This type of success does not depend on a single factor; This is thanks to more than a decade of good decisions and solid marketing. But Apple was only able to make the iPhone thanks to all the momentum it built in the 2000s — and much of that happened thanks to the chord it struck with the iPod.