The evolution of digital music launched by Apple iPod two decades ago still continues


On October 23, 2001, Apple released the iPod, a portable media player that promised to overshadow the bulky design and low storage capacity of MP3 players introduced in the mid-1990s.

The iPod boasted of the ability to “hold 1,000 songs in your pocket”. Its personalized listening format has revolutionized the way we consume music. And with more than 400 million units sold since its release, there is no doubt that it was a success.

Yet two decades later, the digital music landscape continues to evolve rapidly.

Steve Jobs, then CEO of Apple, introduced the iPod in 2001.

Market success

The iPod has extended listening beyond the constraints of the home stereo system, allowing the user to plug in not only their headphones, but also their car stereo, work computer or home stereo. It was easier to interweave these disparate spaces into a single, personalized soundtrack throughout the day.

There were several prerequisites that led to the success of the iPod. On the one hand, it contributed to the end of an era where people listened to relatively fixed collections of music, such as mixtapes or albums in their working order. The iPod (and MP3 players more generally) has standardized random collections of individual tracks.

Then in the 1990s, an MP3 encoding algorithm developed at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany enabled unprecedented audio data compression rates. Put simply, it has made music files much smaller than before, dramatically increasing the amount of music that can be stored on a device.

Then came peer-to-peer file sharing services like Napster, Limewire and BitTorrent, released in 1999, 2000 and 2001, respectively. These helped democratize the Internet for the end user (with Napster bringing together 80 million users in three years). The result was a rapidly changing digital landscape where music piracy was rampant.

The accessibility of music has dramatically changed the relationship between listener and musician. In 2003, Apple responded to the music piracy crisis by launching its iTunes store, creating a attractive model for copyrighted content.

Meanwhile, the iPod has continued to sell year after year. It was designed to do one thing, and it did it well. But that would change around 2007 with the release of the touchscreen iPhone and Android smartphones.

Computer in pockets

The rise of touchscreen smartphones ultimately led to the downfall of the iPod. Interestingly, the music app on the original iPhone was called “iPod”.

The functions of the iPod have essentially been reclaimed and absorbed into the iPhone. The iPhone was a flexible and multifunctional device: an iPod, a telephone and an Internet communicator all in one – one computer in your pocket.

And by making developer tools for their products available for free, Apple and Google have made it possible for third-party developers to build apps for their new platforms by the thousands.

It has been a game-changer for the mobile industry. And the future range of tablets, like the Apple iPad released in 2010, continues this trend. In 2011, iPhone sales overtook the iPod, and in 2014, the iPod Classic was abandoned.

Unlike the Apple Watch, which serves as a companion to smartphones, single-use devices such as the iPod Classic are now considered dated and obsolete.

Role of the Internet

As of this year, mobile devices are responsible for 54.8% of web traffic worldwide. And while music piracy still exists, its influence has been greatly reduced by the arrival of streaming services such as Spotify and YouTube.

These platforms have had a profound effect on how we interact with music as active and passive listeners. Spotify supports an online community approach to sharing music, with curated playlists.

Based on our listening habits, it uses our activity data and a range of machine learning technical to generate automatic recommendations for us. Spotify and YouTube have also adopted sponsored content, which boosts the visibility of certain labels and artists.

And while we may want to sidestep popular music recommendations – especially to support new generations of musicians who lack visibility – the reality is that we are faced with an amount of music that we cannot contend with. In February of this year, over 60,000 songs were downloading to Spotify every day.

And after?

The experience of listening to music will become more and more immersive over time, and we will only find more ways to integrate it seamlessly into our lives. Some signs of this include:

  • Gen Z’s growing obsession with platforms like TikTok, which is a huge promotional tool for artists lucky enough to have their track attached to a viral trend.
  • New interactive tools for musical exploration, such as Radio garden (which allows you to tune in to radio stations from all over the world), the Eternal jukebox for Spotify and Intrusive.
  • The use of portable devices, such as Bose audio sunglasses and bone conduction headphones, which let you listen to music while interacting with the world rather than being closed off, and …
  • The rise in power virtual musical performances during the Covid-19 pandemic, which suggests that virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality will be increasingly accepted as spaces for experiencing musical performances.

The industry is also increasingly embracing immersive audio. Apple has integrated Dolby Atmos 3D spatial audio into both its Logic Pro music production software and music from the iTunes Store. With spatial audio capabilities, the listener can enjoy surround sound with the convenience of portable headphones.

When it comes to algorithms, we can assume that more sophisticated machine learning will emerge. In the future, he might recommend music based on our feelings. For example, MoodPlay is a music recommendation system that allows users to explore music through mood-based filtering.

Some advanced listening devices even adapt to our physiology. Australian design Nura headphones can collect information about how the ears of a specific listener react to different sound frequencies. They claim to automatically adjust the sound to fit that listener perfectly.

Such technologies take “personalized listening” to a whole new level, and advancements in this area are expected to continue. If the digital music landscape has changed so rapidly over the past 20 years, we can only assume that it will continue to change over the next two decades as well.

Stuart james is a lecturer and researcher in composition and music technology at Edith Cowan University.

This article first appeared on The conversation.


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