Surprise Hits: Apple's iPod jolts electronics, music industries back to life

Apple unleashed the iPod to a nation on edge in October 2001. It was six weeks after the September 11 attacks, and the anthrax attacks were popping up, making the public -- already anxious about additional terrorist strikes -- even more fearful of the world around them.

People were in no mood to get excited about a consumer product that would revolutionize an industry or two. But eight years later, we can see how the unfortunately timed iPod would become the biggest surprise hit of the decade -- as much a part of our culture as the family car or baseball caps.

A thousand songs in your pocket, Apple's Steve Jobs promised at the time -- it sounds so modest now -- all for the not-so-low price of $399, in a gadget that looked unfamiliar, with its elegant scroll-wheel, and stirred up critics. Why would Apple (AAPL) take its focus off of its successful line of computers, analysts wondered, and how would it make money on such a product?

In its first four years, Apple sold 42 million iPods, ranging in price from $99 to $599, according to Steven Levy's 2006 iPod history The Perfect Thing. Between October 2008 and March, Apple sold nearly 34 million iPods -- and now you can fit 30,000 songs in your pocket.

The odd iPod quickly became become a familiar status symbol around the world. The ease of using iTunes and taking a CD and quickly transfering it to the device you could carry in your pocket prompted pop singer Seal to gush, "Everyone's going to want to have one of these."

Seal was right. Jobs can take credit for breathing life back into Apple -- the company he had led by making aesthetically pleasing computers -- and with forever changing the world of handheld devices. The original iPod would lead to the Nano and the Shuffle and, eventually, the iPod Touch and iPhone, which put the power of a computer in the palm of your hand.

The iPod design and name have been copied endlessly by other electronics-makers, hoping to cash in on its success, still growing after eight years on the market. Whenever Apple improves the iPod's look, feel, or storage size, fans of the sleek, clean-looking product with the cute name buy the latest model. No doubt many iPods sit forgotten in desks, closets, and drawers around the country, collecting dust -- not that Apple minds.

Lately we've all come to realize that Steve Jobs may not, in fact, be immortal. The iPod, however, may be. Years from now, we'll probably marvel when the iPod evolves into something that makes the iPhone look as primitive as that original scroll-wheel MP3 player that Jobs unveiled on October 23, 2001, changing the computer and the music industry in one swift move.

Anthony Massucci is a senior writer for DailyFinance. You may follow him on Twitter at hianthony.

Be sure to check out all 20 recent products that became Surprise Hits.

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