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iPod Digital Music Player Turns Five

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Mondays, the business report focuses on technology, and that is appropriate because this Monday is the birthday of iPod. The digital music player debuted five years ago today.

Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL: The singer Madonna has never been one to miss out on a trend. The iPod is no exception. When Madonna finally let the online iTunes Store carry her music, she made an appearance via videophone at the 2005 MacWorld Conference in San Francisco. Apple CEO Steve Jobs asked her if she had an iPod.

MADONNA (Musician): Of course I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVE JOBS (CEO, Apple): Which one?

MADONNA: That's so duh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYDELL: The iPod has become a symbol of the fusion of music and technology, but it wasn't the first MP3 player on the market. There were others, says industrial designer Mark Dziersk.

Mr. MARK DZIERSK (Industrial Designer): There were a lot of MP3 players that were like overly-styled Ferraris with multiple buttons that nobody could figure how to do.

SYDELL: Five years ago today, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPod, he dwelled on its beautiful design and simplicity.

Mr. JOBS: It's stainless steel. It's really, really durable. It's beautiful. Boom - that's iPod. I happen to have one right here in my pocket, as a matter of fact.

SYDELL: Sixty-seven million of the digital music players have been sold to date, according to Apple. Industry analysts say the iPod has cornered 75 percent of the MP3 market. Industrial designer Scott Summit - a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University - says with the iPod, Apple made the experience of downloading music to a portable player easy.

Professor SCOTT SUMMIT (Visiting Professor and Industrial Designer, Carnegie Mellon University): They have managed to take the technology out of the experience itself. The experience really has everything to do with the music, and anything beyond that falls to the side. You're really about getting your music, accessing your music and the culture that surrounds that.

SYDELL: It wasn't hard to learn to use the iPod. Connect it to your computer, buy some songs at the iTunes Store, or rip them from CDs you own. The wheel on the front of the digital screen made it easy to find songs. With the first iPod, users could hold 1,000 songs in their pocket and listen without recharging the battery for six or more hours, although there have been complains that the batteries don't last as long as advertised. Robert Brunner, an industrial designer who once worked at Apple, says there's a reason the company was able to succeed where others have failed: Steve Jobs' notorious perfectionism and his emphasis on the consumer experience.

Mr. ROBERT BRUNNER (Industrial Designer): If you can't open a box up and take it out, and look at a few things on the how to get started card and be up and running, I feel like somebody hasn't done their job. And that's why I think Apple has always been really great.

SYDELL: Apple has also done a remarkable marketing job, says Brunner, with hip, colorful iPod commercials where the iconic white ear buds hang down from the heads of dancing figures. Even prominent pop musicians like Bob Dylan have performed in ads.

(Soundbite of song, "Someday Baby")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Musician): (Singing) You can take your clothes, put them in a sack. You're going down the road...

SYDELL: But what goes up can indeed go down. The iPod has its vulnerabilities. Since it created the iPod five years ago, Apple has just streamlined the original design and come out with variations on the theme - video capabilities, the Nano, the Shuffle. Industrial designer Mark Dziersk says sometimes success can stifle creativity, even at an innovative company like Apple.

Mr. DZIERSK: They're the granddaddy out there right now. They're going to have some trouble staying fresh with that unless they take the same kind of risks that they did before.

SYDELL: Dziersk and others say Apple will also have to see if the design lends itself to new technologies. Microsoft will be coming out with a competing player in November that will allow users to exchange songs wirelessly. While competing companies are looking for a design that will be the next hit, pictures of the most touted competition - the anticipated Microsoft Zune - show it looks an awful a lot like the iPod.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: And if you are one of those who just can't figure up the darn iPod, we've got user tips at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.