Five years ago, the iPod was launched, offering "a breakthrough MP3 music player that packs up to 1,000 CD-quality songs into an ultraportable, 6.5-ounce design that fits in your pocket." It wasn't the first MP3 player by a long shot, but it was definitely the first to penetrate the mainstream psyche. It is the Walkman of the early 21st century.
What a remarkable five years for the franchise, which now holds a commanding 79 percent of the U.S. MP3 player market (it actually peaked in mid-2004 at 92 percent). Within those five years, we've seen brands such as Rio flame out, and wannabes such as Dell and Gateway bow out due to the pressure. Recently, second place SanDisk has approached 19 percent market share, and there are several outstanding players including Toshiba's Gigabeat S and Creative's Zen Vision:M that theoretically challenge the iPod.
The first 5GB iPod
In reality, the mainstream consumer still lusts after the iPod, and this in an upcoming holiday season that the Consumer Electronics Association tags as the year of the MP3 player, part deux.
I've covered the iPod since its inception, and I do own a few: the first-generation tactile scrollwheel version (5GB, $399!), the first-gen iPod Shuffle, a fourth-gen iPod Photo (my fave), and a new 4GB pink Nano (it's actually my wife's). While it isn't my current MP3 player of choice (that's the Toshiba Gigabeat S), I've logged more hours listening to an iPod than to any other device.
What would the MP3 landscape look like if there had never been an iPod?
So instead of praising or bashing it, I'd like to recollect five of my most memorable moments with the iPod.
- First-day jitters: My first day at CNET was July 19, 2004--the launch date of the fourth-generation iPod. Forget about orientation...you've got a review to write! Since Apple doesn't dish out the gear prelaunch (unless your name happens to be Walt Mossberg), I ran down to the Apple store and bought myself one. That was an expensive first day on the job.
- Third-party firmware: Even today, my iPod Photo still runs the nonnative Linux-based Rockbox firmware--and I love it. The smart folks at Rockbox have actually created replacement firmware for a number of MP3 players, including some from Archos, iRiver, and Cowon. Continually in development, the Rockbox firmware takes full advantage of the iPod hardware, and on top of customizable skins, it offers better sound quality and more open format support than the Apple version. Read about my experiences here.
Open-source Rockbox firmware on my iPod to the right
- Reviving a classic: I've swapped out several dead iPod batteries with those of third-party ilk. It's not that difficult, though you will void your warranty if it's still active (don't worry, Apple promises to replace units with faulty batteries within a year). But when a dead first-generation Mini showed up at my desk, I jumped at the chance to replace its battery. Here's a step-by-step tutorial on how to refresh the now-classic Mini. Good timing, too, since many of the batteries of the millions of Minis sold are probably dead by now.
- iPod (and backpack) recovered: The details are fuzzy: long night, huge industrial space, lots of dancing, and good times. That was, until my backpack went missing. In addition to some Ethernet cables, a sweater, and lots of change, the backpack held an iPod. The only piece of identification happened to be the name of my iPod--"email@example.com--REWARD." Amazingly, I got an e-mail and picked up my backpack from a stranger, who wouldn't accept a reward. People are good.
- Nano warranty voided: In one of my more embarrassing moments, immediately after the shooting of the original Nano's First Look video, I demonstrated to Veronica Belmont the durability of this flash-based player by dropping it from about three feet. Bad move. While the Nano still powers up today, the display cracked in multiple places, rendering the gadget useless. At least the Shuffle is designed to be used blindly. If you're going to obliterate a Nano, do it the right way.
It was neither the first, nor did it ever boast the most features, and many proclaim that there are better-sounding MP3 players. But thanks to mainstream-level ease of use (especially within iTunes), edgy design, and marketing magic, the iPod rose high enough to become a cultural icon in a flash. In another five years, we'll have plenty more iPod stories to tell.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET Reviews.
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