Top 25 "It" products of all time: #1 -- The iPod

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They're so ubiquitous now, a little more than seven years later, that it's hard to remember just how revolutionary the iPod was.

Portable music had existed as long as the cassette tape, and compact discs had been in wide use for some 20 years. But those were cumbersome, couldn't be bumped around, and required users to constantly flip or change cassettes or disc. Cell phones had mushroomed just three years before. Portable music was ripe for its own revolution, and as Edison proved, necessity is often the seed of great fruit. A little over a month after 9/11, in October 2001, Apple announced its first iPod.

At first, media critics scoffed at the luxury price tag of $400. And, yes, that was a lot, but as we soon discovered, the price would come down. The ability to be able to carry around all your music on something the size of a deck of cards proved irresistible. Apple soon unleashed a torrent of cheaper, smaller, more powerful versions, and by 2007, the Nano, a flash version of the original, was Apple's biggest seller, and the average price on an iPod was $161.

There were some MP3-playing antecedents on the market. Every game-changing product has its early rumblings. But many of them were, quite frankly, ugly, and their designs were often cluttered with buttons and navigational menus that only a techie could love. The iPod, though, was pretty. It was easy to use (even though that spinning scroll wheel on the first model was, thankfully, replaced by a pad that sensed your finger's touch). There was something classical about it from the very start.

The iPod was more than a product that seized its moment, though. It was a product that seemed to remember that everyday people were going to use it. It was a complicated device that was clearly designed by people for people. The iPod's success has inspired more direct communication between function and the audience. In short, stuff has become prettier and easier to use.

When you think about it, the iPod was pretty limited. It played sounds. That was it. We're supposed to be a video-obsessed, click-addicted society, yet somehow, this mini Victrola really pumped us up. Once the iPod embraced Windows users, too, the fuse was lit on its explosion, and everyone just had to have one. In three years, Apple had sold some some 7.4 million units. The sonic boom is still being felt in the recording industry, too: iTunes, the music store that best feeds the device, had sold 5 billion songs as of last June. Because of the iPod, you won't find a cassette tape anywhere, and CDs aren't doing too well, either.

Like Scotch tape, Coke, and Band-Aids before it, "iPod" became a nickname for any similar device in its genre. In 2002, you might want to hide your iPod on the bus for fear that it made you a target for theft. Today, nearly everyone has one (and you'd be more likely to stash your iPhone).

Since then, of course, the iPod adopted color photo display, video replay, and now, with the iPod touch, it can tell you where you are, play games with you, and coordinate your life by talking through the air to your home computer. But those incremental advances came afterward, following the boom.

Apple just reported a quarterly revenue over $10 billion, a first for the company, and its desktop computer sales soared 9 percent compared to a year ago. The iPod has introduced countless new customers to the brand and given Microsoft further cause for nail-biting--in 2006, Mac's rival launched its own player, the Zune, which was more mimic than echo.

So the iPod has ultimately proved to be more than a gimmick, a fad, or a luxury item. It was all of those things, of course, but it was no flash in the pan. It has changed our expectations of entertainment. It made culture fully portable.

There's one legacy of the iPod that our culture could stand to lose, and that's the "i" prefix. Apple was using it for products well before 2001, first apparently to denote devices that could get you onto the Internet, and later, simply as a quick way to say its products are personable. Now this diminutive letter is slapped onto any personal machine that people might possibly use.

The most ridiculous use of this tired letter so far? The newly invented iShovel, a robotic snow shovel. It must be said that unlike our beloved hand-held jukebox, the thing looks nothing like Eve in WALL-E.
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