September 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Without Music, Apple Would Be Nothing (Or Maybe Just Irrelevant)

apple music ios steve jobs ipod

Eleven years ago, I watched Steve Jobs unveil the iPod at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters. The following week,  I made my best prediction to date: that descendents of the iPod would replace the PC, as they are now doing. Gizmodo generously called it the best iPod prediction of all time. A colleague once suggested that I get it printed on my business cards.

Steve Jobs was a music fan to his core. I’ve been learning more about the depth of his musical appreciation, as I prepare to teach a class about Apple and the music business this fall. One of his most formative experiences was watching a wheat field sway, as he heard the music of Bach, and imagined himself to be conducting the wheat (he was on acid). Jobs dated the folksinger Joan Baez for a spell, possibly because Bob Dylan, one of his heroes, had gone out with her. And his infamous attention to detail was motivated, to an extent, by hearing a recording of The Beatles craft their wonderful “Strawberry Fields.” He said it showed how real, flawed humans could work and work on something until it was perfect.

The list goes on, but suffice it to say that music was a big part of Steve Jobs’ life. Moreover, it transformed the company he co-founded with Steve Wozniak, from a struggling computer manufacturer into the most valuable company in the world, reinventing the music, software, and telecommunications industries along the way.

If Apple had never delved into the world of music, it may never have made that transition — or at the very least, it would have taken much longer. During that time, the world would have moved on. It might have been too late. Apple would not be the company it is today, and may have faded into irrelevance, or even worse.

Without music, Apple would not have…

…become so profitable.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in late 1998, he simplified the company’s product line, eliminating projects like the Newton, and simplifying Apple’s confusing array of computers down to just a few key products. That was all about subtraction. The iPod was the first big addition following that period. As of today’s music-dominated keynote address, which ended with a Foo Fighters concert, Apple has sold over 350 million iPods. This not only made it extremely profitable, but helped it accrue a war chest that enabled it to expand into new markets.

…made Windows people switch to Macs.

It’s been said many times before, but it’s still worth mentioning that for many Windows users, the iPod was the first Apple product they ever experienced. Many of them loved their iPods so much that they thought, “What else does Apple do this well?” That so-called “halo effect” spread to Apple desktops, laptops, smartphones, set-top boxes, and tablets. (The same is happening to Android-toting music fans, thanks to AirPlay.)

…become an entertainment powerhouse.

Without the iPod, there would be no need for iTunes. Without iTunes, Apple wouldn’t sell music, movies, television shows, ebooks, or apps. When this first deal to sell music online was made, little did the record labels know that the Mac-only iTunes, which could only sell music to around four percent of computer users, would lead to Apple controlling the mainstream digital music market on all platforms for a decade or more, as its entertainment empire spread to other realms.

 …revolutionized the telecommunications industry.

Once Apple had gotten a taste of building consumer electronics devices that were sort of like computers but way smaller and easier to use (i.e. iPods), the stage was set for another handheld device of a similar shape, one that also synced with iTunes: the Apple iPhone. Without the iPhone, there would be no Android, as a court recently ruled. Mobile software developers would still be forced to wait through 18-month development-and-approval cycles for a tiny spot on a cellphone “deck,” as the home screens used to be called. In other words: no apps, at least for much, much longer, until another company with the clout to make a phone that acted like a computer acceptable to cellphone carriers surfaced.

…reinvented the tablet.

Without the iPod, there would be no iPhone. Without the iPhone, there would be no tablet. Steve Jobs thought tablets that used a stylus were silly, but once Apple had the iPhone, all it had to do to reinvent the tablet was expand the dimensions of the iPhone. As of today, according to Apple, the iPad has 68 percent marketshare among tablet users, and perhaps more importantly, 91 percent of tablet traffic to websites comes from iPads. Without the iPod, would Apple ever have gotten there? Clearly, I am arguing that it would not have, or at the very least, that it would have cost Apple crucial years.

…been cool.

To normal people — the ones who don’t spend all day reading liveblogs – computers used to be dorky. It’s hard to believe, now that geeks are “the new rockstars” or whatever, and the most famous celebrities are known as much for their Twitter feeds as for their creative output. Music, as represented by the iPod, iTunes, and those iconic ads like the one pictured above, made Apple (and technology for that matter) “cool” to normal people.

The iPod was not just a music player. It provided the resources for Apple to build itself into the most valuable company in the world, and the marketing to make normal people care not just about this one company, but arguably, about the computing industry in general. It’s probably a good thing that Steve Jobs was a music fan.

Image courtesy of Flickr/osakasteve

  • Wesley Verhoeve

    Is there an implied “So Apple should help us now” in here, or am I just imagining that?

  • Anonymous

    So true. It was hard to watch the music industry tie itself in knots over failing to jump on the digital revolution. Steve and Apple jumped in with iTunes and everyone has been following their lead since.

  • Joel

    ”and the marketing to make normal people care not just about this one company, but arguably, about the computing industry in general.” – stupid exaggeration.

  • Eliot Van Buskirk

    You could argue that, sure. I guess I could have been more specific. People did already care about technology, but not in the same way, and not for the same reasons.