No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.
Slashdot's CmdrTaco, expressing his disinterest in the iPod's release, on Oct. 23, 2001
The iPod is both Apple's hard-drive-based digital music player, and the name for their line of mp3 players. While the iPod wasn't the first hard drive mp3 player, let alone the first standalone mp3 player, it is, without a doubt, the most popular and successful. In less than four years, it has not only taken up the lion's share of the dedicated mp3 player market (with 2004 estimates of market share running along the lines of 90% of hard-drive-based players and 70% of all players), but helped to revitalize Apple Computer both financially and in the minds of consumers and geeks.
Plus, it's a damn fine little gadget.
If you've missed the last four years of geek news (or are reading this in the far future), the iPod plays music. It's a plastic and metal pocket-sized box and super-slick UI wrapped around a very small hard drive. You connect it to your Mac or PC with a Firewire or USB cable, and it synchronizes with your iTunes library of digital music. Not counting the iPod Shuffle or iPod Mini, they run from $299 up to $600, depending on the hard drive size and generation.
The iPod is about the size of an American pack of cigarettes (4" by 2.4" by 0.75" in its first incarnation, and less in later ones) and the weight of a cigarette box filled with coins (6.5 ounces in the first generation.) (The iPod Mini and iPod Shuffle are a bit different, however.) The front is glossy white plastic, with a rectangular LCD screen dominating the upper half and the lower half dominated by a circular scroll wheel. The headphone jack is on the top, and other ports depend on the specific generation of iPod. Inside is a standard 1.5" hard drive (same as you might find in a type II CompactFlash microdrive) holding between 5 and 60 gigabytes. Current iPods can hook up to Macs and PCs, can connect via Firewire or USB 2.0, and can play mp3, AAC, wav, AIFF, Apple Lossless, and Audible files. (They can also keep track of address book entries and to-do lists, but this is a tertiary function.)
The Original - the first-generation iPod
Because Apple abandoned model numbers after Steve Jobs's return, iPods are separated into four generations by hardware revision. Third-gen iPods actually saw a capacity increase midway through their life, but the generations are separated by outward appearance, not size. The iPod Mini, iPod Shuffle, and iPod Photo are separate from this generation scheme, due to their different model names.
The original iPod had a 5 gigabyte hard drive originally developed for use in type II CompactFlash cards, which dwarfed the 128 meg capacity of the flash players that were typical at the time. It used a unique "scroll wheel" to control the surprisingly intuitive menu interface, and had an (at the time) impressive ten-hour battery life. Despite being Mac-only (not counting clever hacks like ephPod or XPlay), it sold 125,000 units between its mid-November 2001 release and the end of the year.
Besides the size, these first-generation iPods had an actual spinning scroll wheel instead of a laptop-like touchpad circle, and had standard Play, FF, Rewind, Stop buttons built into a thick rim around this circle. It also has a Firewire/IEEE 1394 port on the top, for transferring files.
Windows Support - the second-generation iPod
In July of 2002, Apple updated their iPod. It was slightly slimmer, and the mechanical scroll wheel is replaced with a touchpad-like touch-sensitive circle, it was offered in 10 gig and 20 gig capacities, and had better firmware that allowed for basic PIM functions. (The firmware update was available for free for all iPod owners, a trend that Apple carries to this day.)
More important than minor updates to the hardware and software was the addition of FAT32+ formatted iPods packaged with MusicMatch Jukebox for Windows users. The addition of a Windows version and the increasing popularity of the iPod convinces even mainstream retailers like Best Buy and Target to stock the iPod.
Blades and Razors - the third-generation iPod
In May 2003, Apple unveils a new iPod and a compatible downloadable music store, called the iTunes Music Store. (The iTMS would go on to sell a million songs in a week, before even the release of the Windows version of iTunes.) This third-gen iPod can be used with both Macs and PCs, and by October, works with the brand-new iTunes for Windows.
This new iPod is even slimmer, and has the Play/FF/Rewind/Stop buttons in a row in between the screen and scroll wheel. More importantly, it has a dock connector instead of a Firewire plug, and adapters for both Firewire and USB 2.0 are available for this dock connector. It was initially available in 10, 15, and 30 gig capacities, and a later update would add 20 and 40 gig capacities.
Who'd pay $250 for 4 gigs? - the iPod Mini
Apparently, a lot of people.
The iPod Mini was debuted in January of 2004, and was even smaller and slimmer than the iPod, and sported a 4 gig hard drive. It had a similar, smaller screen, and the 'click wheel' scroll wheel, with the buttons actually built into the scroll wheel. Instead of being white plastic, it came in five metallic colors, and cost $250, only $50 less than the cheapest regular (15 gig) iPod. As such, critics pointed out its poor price-capacity ratio, and doubted if anyone would be willing to pay so much.
The demand ended up delaying the international release of the iPod Mini for two months. It was a massive success, and would be much-imitated by other companies selling similar small, mid-capacity players.
A March 2005 update would upgrade the iPod Mini to 6 gig hard drives, along with brighter case colors and a new chipset that offered longer battery life. The gold-colored case was dropped, however.
What do Motorola, U2, and Hewlett-Packard have in common? - the fourth-generation iPod
In July 2004, after having sold more than 3 million iPods and 100 million songs over iTMS, the fourth generation of iPods was released. The 'click wheels' from the iPod Mini replaced both the scroll wheel and the buttons, and the hard drives came in 20 gig and 40 gig capacities.
By this time, the iPod is such a success that Apple even advertised the iMac G5 as "From the creators of iPod." This sort of success encourages partnerships, and the first came in August 2004, with Hewlett-Packard. HP licensed the fourth-generation iPod (although not the iPod Mini) and sold a cobranded version, known as the "Apple iPod from HP" (or "iPod+HP.") This iPod would make it into even Radio Shack and Wal-Mart.
U2, too, got a special iPod. The U2 iPod Special Edition was a 20 gig fourth-gen iPod with a black front, red scroll wheel, and specially engraved rear casing with the band's signatures. It cost $50 more than the equivalent 20 gig iPod, but came with a $50 coupon off a special collection of all of U2's songs.
Motorola, too, licensed the iPod UI and the DRM used for iTMS songs for use in a future phone, which has not yet materialized. It isn't clear if this will be marketed as an "iTunes phone" or "iPod phone."
Upstaged by U2 - the iPod Photo
Released alongside the U2 iPod in October 2004, the iPod Photo wasn't quite as successful as the other iPods. It was simply an iPod with a color screen and a larger hard drive, available at first in 40 and 60 gig capacities. (There's also an AV cable accessory, if a matchbook-sized screen is too small for you.) Unfortunately, it was too expensive, starting at $500, and people just weren't interested in downloading photos to their iPod to view them on the go. (It didn't help that downloading pictures required Windows users to use a kludgey iTunes extension, instead of the slick iPhoto integration on the Mac.)
Despite the initially poor reception, the iPod Photo is the future of the iPod. A March 2005 line update all but phased out the monochrome iPods, replacing both the 40 gig iPod Photo and 40 gig iPod with a 30 gig and 60 gig iPod photo with much-reduced price tags. Color LCDs have gotten cheap enough to allow all of the iPods to be iPod Photos.
Who needs a screen? - the iPod Shuffle
In February 2005, Apple released the iPod Shuffle, their first flash mp3 player, and it isn't a bit like the other iPods. It's a lozenge the size of a pack of gum, with a USB plug sticking out of one end, and a headphone jack on the other. It's made of white plastic, and has only a small circle with basic controls on one side and an sequential-shuffle-off sliding switch on the other. It's available in 512 megabyte or 1 gig capacities, in prices not too much more than a similar (non-mp3-playing) flash thumb drive, but doesn't play Apple Lossless files. Note the lack of a screen.
The critical response, as usual, was mixed. Before, even the cheapest mp3 players had screens, and this was being released by the same Apple whose CEO had decried flash memory players as obsolete. Nevertheless, it sold very well after being launched, due to its low price and the iPod cachet.
Well, that was a nice history lesson right there. But you're wondering what's so great about the iPod, or alternately why all the message board postings you ever see are "iPod sucks!" Let's look at the iPod's pros and cons.
iTunes - iTunes is, in my opinion, the only non-braindead music organization software. It's not necessarily the best player (unless you're on a Mac), but it's less time-consuming than synchronizing music collections by hand, and it beats the pants off of mediocre software like MusicMatch Jukebox, Windows Media Player 10, or Sony's abysmal SonicStage software. It helps that the iTunes Music Store is one of the better downloadable music services.
User Interface - The iPod's interface leaves the closest competitors in the dust. It's a subjective sort of thing, but the iPod was developed by a group of very talented people who went to a lot of efffort to make the most common tasks easy to do and arrange all of the controls logically and efficiently.
Fashion - All of the iPods are attractive not just in a geeky gadget way, but in a fashion accessory way. None of them look like something that should be sitting next to a half-open beige PC tower case.
Support - Under warranty, Apple will generally exchange iPods for you for even the smallest problem, with no hassle.
Cost - iPods aren't just expensive as things that play music go, they're expensive compared to the competition. Expect to pay a 10-20% price premium over the competition.
No Ogg Vorbis or WMA support - As Apple doesn't have an efficient Ogg decoder and generally isn't interested in licensing Windows Media from Microsoft, those formats aren't supported. Since Apple doesn't support WMA (or RealMedia or Sony's ATRAC3, for that matter), the only DRM-encumbered download service supported by the iPod is Apple's own iTunes Music Store.
iTunes - iTunes on Windows is bloated as all get-out, compared to software like WinAmp. (iTunes on Linux, well, it doesn't exist, and it only works with Windows 2000 or XP.) It not only sucks up memory, but has a variety of features, other than just playing music, that even Windows-using iPod-owners don't care about. Simple dragging and dropping won't build the library the iPod OS needs to play music, so you'll need an alternative program or hack if you don't or can't use iTunes.
Features - iPods don't have FM tuners or voice recorders built-in, something which many competitors do have. While these features can be added with accessories, that's just increased expense.
Sources: ipodlounge.com, Wired, and Apple