Why the iPod crossed the MP3 player chasm

Rob Vickery

This weekend marked the twenty-first year since Apple’s iPod launched, marking a paradigm shift for the music industry and how consumers listened to their favourite artists. 

The iPod launch is also the most critical and formative element of my favourite startup lore textbook – Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” (pick up a copy here).

If you haven’t had the chance to read the book, it focuses on the phenomenon of discontinuity in the tech adoption lifecycle curve between the hedonists/early adopters and the early majority, called the “chasm”. 

Moore theorised that Apple and iPod crossed the chasm because of several factors.

They capitalised upon the lack of consumer appetite for Diamond’s Rio and, five years later, Microsoft’s Zune. Whilst their products were technically superior (more extensive storage etc.) to the iPod, their interface and aesthetics left much desired. 

Apple realised that consumers and music enthusiasts didn’t want an MP3 player. What they wanted was to listen to their music while they were on the go. Despite its ease of use, Sony’s Discman required people to lug around and juggle CDs while moving around. Apple realised that CDs constrained people’s ability to have their complete music library at their fingertips. Granted, in 2001, most of us didn’t know how much the MP3 file format would change our music listening experience, let alone the music industry. We simply didn’t know any better, and Apple showed us an exciting and entirely different future. Just like they did six years later with their iPhone.

Apple identified that the existing MP3 players in the market were a bugger to use and upload music onto them. There was no simple interface to arrange and parse your music library into playlists. The answer wasn’t a better mouse trap for the existing players. The answer was a customer-focused user experience. 

Apple saw that consumers wanted a product that was simple, convenient and had a fun (elegant even) way to organise and listen to their tunes on the go. Music lovers also wanted a new exciting way to discover new music and share it with their friends. 

Music fans were also becoming increasingly aware of how record labels were ripping off artists through their ever-growing position as greedy, exploitative middle people sitting between fans and their favourite artists. Apple elected to create a platform that allowed fans to support their favourite bands and pay a fair price for their songs. 

Since its inception, Apple has created walled gardens for its customers to use its products, and they played this strategy to a T with the end-to-end experience that iPod offered its users.

They knew that beyond being a great player, they needed a new business model and ecosystem for the artist, publishers, and labels could work with Apple to evolve a largely offline industry into the connected, digital age.

This new business model was centred around the iTunes digital music player and store, enabling consumers to enjoy their music in a way they had never thought of before. 

In summary, it wasn’t the hardware that allowed the iPod to cross the chasm. It was due to two things, in my opinion: 

  • The groundbreaking iTunes software and user experience left Microsoft and Diamond in the dust. 
  • Jony Ive’s incredible product design, Jobs’ vision and the sheer brilliance and unparalleled execution of Apple’s marketing team.

Crossing Moore’s “chasm” is bloody hard. Redefining an entire industry is even more challenging. Happy 21st birthday, iPod and iTunes!