As iPod Turns 12, We Look Back At Its Early (Awful) Reviews

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ipodembedPhoto: Courtesy of Apple.
Today, the iPod turns 12. It's a little hard to remember the days before Apple's ubiquitous music player hit the market — the days when we endured skipping CDs, MiniDiscs, and brick-heavy MP3 players. Then, along came this minimal, Dieter Rams-inspired rectangle that put "1,000 songs in your pocket." (Today, the iPod can hold 40,000.)

It not only became a hallmark Apple product, but a major cultural artifact that has permanently influenced industrial design, the music industry, and the way we watch TV and film. Along with the iPhone, which indirectly owes its existence to the iPod, it gave birth to our plugged-in, device-obsessed culture — for better or worse.

In 2001 however, the iPod was not an immediate success. In fact, for the first several months that they were available — including the critical holiday season — most iPods just collected dust on store shelves. In the Apple's first quarter of 2002 (its fiscal year ends in September), the company sold a paltry 125,000 iPods. By the end of the year, its sales totaled just 376,000. (In stark contrast, Apple sold 35,111,000 iPods in 2012.)

So, why the initial resistance? Many were worried about its price tag — $400 at the time — as a barrier to wide adoption, while others thought that the iPod could never achieve success when the number of Windows users far outweighed Apple users.

The New York Times was especially cautious: "But while industry analysts said the device appeared to be as consumer friendly as the company said it was, they also pointed to its relatively limited potential audience, around seven million owners of the latest Macintosh computers. Apple said it had not yet decided whether to introduce a version of the music player for computers with the Windows operating system, which is used by more than 90 percent of personal computer users." Matt Richtel, then writing for the Times, continued on with a quote from an e-commerce research analyst, who said, "It's a nice feature for Macintosh users, but to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn't make any difference."

Retailers echoed those concerns to CNET's Margaret Kane. "'There's been a lot of interest, but many people are waiting to see it when it comes in. People have to make a serious investment in the concept,' said one salesperson at a New York retail store that specializes in Apple products, who asked not to be named. 'I've ordered about 20. As a Mac specialist, I have to have them even if I don't want them.'" Kane wondered if Apple had created "another iMac-like hit, or a well-designed but expensive flop like its Cube."

Rodney O. Lain at The Mac Observer was even more candid when he pegged the device as the "iYawn" and sniffed at the very idea of Apple-branded lifestyle tech. "I hope I'm wrong. I hope Apple sells millions of iPods. I hope Apple has more 'digital-lifestyle' products up its collective sleeve to spring upon us (next time, Apple, before you choose to use superlatives like 'breakthrough,' think twice, 'kay?). And I hope one of these days, Apple will release a device that unequivocally lives up to the hype of 'breakthrough digital device.'" Well, Lain, that "breakthrough" surely came in 2007, with the debut of the iPhone.

Many of the tech geeks on Slashdot's iPod thread weren't convinced, either. "Raise your hand if you have iTunes," wrote one. "Raise your hand if you have a FireWire port ...Raise your hand if you have both...Raise your hand if you have $400 to spend on a cute Apple device...There is Apple's market. Pretty slim, eh? I don't see many sales in the future of iPod."

Of course, there were more generous reviews. "[The] digitally processed music of 'N Sync, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and other popsters sounds even better, with all the booms, bumps and thuds," reported the Associated Press in 2001. PC Magazine lauded its size: "About the size of a deck of cards, the iPod weighs a mere 6.5 ounces." Current models, for comparison, range from 4.9 ounces for the iPod Classic to just .44 ounces for the Shuffle.

Macworld got deep into the device and found serious performance power for a portable device at the time. "We tested the iPod by copying 333 songs (1.35GB) to it, and the results were impressive. Using a Power Mac G4/450, it took 4 minutes and 58 seconds in Mac OS 9.2.1 and just 3 minutes and 5 seconds in Mac OS X 10.1."

Macworld did have a one bone of contention, however. "Even though the included white ear-bud headphones provide good-quality sound, we found them too large to use comfortably for long periods of time."

Some things never change.