Why the iPod really Matters

The iPod is an extraordinary innovation — and still so misunderstood even on the fifth anniversary of its introduction on October 23, 2001. In contemplating it’s significance, it is tempting to focus on the iPod as a device, an artifact that is as beautiful as it is functional. But the device is only the tip of the iceberg, for the greatest long-term impact of the iPod lies in the underlying iTunes music delivery system.

I don’t mean simply the idea of coupling the device with the delivery system. Rather, it is the details of iTunes that makes it revolutionary. With iTunes, Apple accomplished two vast, seismic shifts. First, the iPod ended the era of the album as the basic unit of music sales. For the first time since the demise of 45 singles records, the song is king.

Second, Apple’s iTunes store broke the album-centric economic model that has given the recording industry its vast power. Frightened by piracy, the music companies thought Apple was a savior when iTunes arrived. In fact, iTunes drove a stake through the heart of the old music order — and the rest of us are all the better for it. The music industry has lost monopoly control of both distribution and pricing, and struggle as it might, the industry will never completely return to anything approaching the control it once had. The result will be a dramatic expansion in the ways people get their music, and the ways performers can reach their audiences.

So happy birthday iPod, I hope you have many years and many models ahead of you (though I fear you will end up as a mere function in newer devices). But even after you finally become an antique memory, music heads everywhere will owe you and your creators an enormous debt of gratitude for breaking the iron grip of the music houses and utterly redefining the music industry.