In 2001, when it was launched, MP3 players using data compression were already around, but they were as ugly and as clunky as a car battery: Apple’s design was beautiful as well as useful.
The ingenious circular dial, the ‘click wheel’ that enabled users to scroll through menus of albums and songs was both rotary and touch-sensitive, deliciously tactile.
It begged to be played with, even when you weren’t in the mood for music.
Apple’s charismatic leader, Steve Jobs, unveiled it with a flash of typical showmanship, in front of a live audience.
But Prophet Jobs understood the human appetite for beauty, and with British designer Jonathan — now Sir Jony — Ive, they became the Lennon and McCartney of tech.
First came the iMac G3, translucent and in playful jelly bean colours. Then the iPod.
The son of a silversmith, Ive persuaded Jobs to let him use metal-working tools at company headquarters. I asked him once about the design and he told me, ‘To build the iPod case, we’ve pushed the outer limits of what can be done with metal.’
Jobs was a hard man to please. According to lore, he picked up an early iPod prototype and dropped it in an aquarium.
Pointing to the bubbles that trickled up from the case, he told engineers to stop wasting space — and eliminate the air pockets. Jobs also hated visible screw heads: part of the beauty of Ive’s design depends on the fact that none is visible.
When the tyrannical Jobs was finally satisfied, the record companies were not. In conflict with MP3 pirates, the last thing they wanted was a device that made it easy to listen to digital tracks.
That was just encouraging people to ignore copyright laws, they said — and it could bankrupt the industry.
Apple hired the producer Jimmy Iovine to talk sense into the record executives. Iovine, who started his career as Bruce Springsteen’s recording engineer in the 1970s, was one of the most respected rock and rap producers in the business. He knew everyone and was renowned for being inexhaustibly persuasive.
Iovine’s motormouth won the argument. Record company bosses agreed to license their music to Apple, so iPod users could download their CD collections onto their computers and buy music online.
Crucially, 14-track albums were now available as individual ‘songs’. Jobs guessed correctly that the iPod spelled the end of the traditional album. And the hegemony of Big Music.
Users could choose individual songs and compile playlists — their own personal curations of greatest hits, from Cosi Fan Tutte to Canned Heat.
Artists could no longer dictate the order of tracks. Like all great design, the iPod had a democratising effect.
To help us get used to this new way to enjoy music, iPod software included the ‘shuffle’ mode. The device picked songs at random, acting as your bespoke DJ.
This was early artificial intelligence and proved so popular that, four years later, Apple introduced an iPod with no screen: it was effectively a plastic finger called ‘The iPod Shuffle’ that played songs in an endless, random pattern. A sign of the times, if signs are what you are looking for.
All this shaped the biggest revolution in music since the gramophone and jazz, almost a century earlier.
Pop and rock music were no longer the province of the young, because everyone could carry an entire record collection in their hip pocket.
There were continuous refinements, including a full-colour screen that allowed you to scroll through album covers, like flicking through a dog-eared vintage vinyl collection. Thus, the iPod became a showcase of graphics as well as an auditorium for sound.
Podcasts arrived, and audiobooks, along with battery power that allowed us to listen for hours on end.
Long flights became less of a misery, with passengers diving deep into worlds of their own at 35,000 ft. Rachmaninov or rap? Who knew — only the listener.
But there is irony here.
The computer made us more connected, while the iPod let us retreat into private compartments.
The arrival of the iPod’s successor, the smartphone, fused both together.
Ive left Apple in 2019, as perhaps the most valuable designer in the world, whose work contributed to one of the greatest acts of wealth creation in corporate history.
Apple is valued at $2 trillion. The biggest record label in the world, Universal Music Group, was valued last year at a mere $54.3 billion.
Apple is no longer the project of alfalfa-munching hippies, but a Wall Street stalwart, sometimes seen as cynical and manipulative.
The death of Jobs in 2011 was a significant moment.
Jony Ive now pursues personal projects. Jimmy Iovine has enjoyed a lucrative collaboration with rap mastermind Dr Dre to design Apple-owned Beats headphones.
When I had a place in The Venice Marathon, a friend gave me an iPod Nano loaded with the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn to motivate my training.
Stirring military music got me through a private world of suffering. It was a perfect modern experience, being out in the world, yet entirely by myself.
That may be the iPod’s memorial: the paradox of privacy achieved through connectivity.
A brilliant exercise in consumer technology, realised through old-fashioned art and design.
Meanwhile, trillion-dollar Apple seems directionless, like many of the very rich.
After so much perfection, mediocrity follows. Perhaps there will never be another product as epochal as the iPod.
- Stephen Bayley was the founding CEO of the Design Museum in 1989.