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Happy 10th birthday, iPod

Time flies when you’re making billions of dollars.

Last weekend saw the 10th anniversary of the original iPod’s unveiling, which was undoubtedly one of the most important turning points for Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL). A decade is more like a century in the world of technology, yet the iPod brand has withstood the test of time and continues to live on, albeit with declining unit sales and revenue.

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Source: Apple.

It was introduced by the late Steve Jobs at a low-key event on Oct. 23, 2001, that shows a stark contrast to the media-frenzied events that Apple now typically hosts. Watching a video of the introduction inspires nostalgia, with a healthy Jobs putting on a show and slides bearing the reprehensible Comic Sans typeface. Jobs describes how Apple saw an opportunity to lead the budding portable-music player market, and then characteristically ends by pulling one out of his pocket.

The device allowed Apple to recapture the respect of the tech world, and the MP3 player market was the first industry for Apple to completely dominate, putting rivals like Sony (NYSE: SNE) to shame. It would be more than five years before Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) jumped in with the Zune, which has since suffered a quiet death.

Not only did Cupertino corner hardware sales, but it also set the standard for digital music distribution with the launch of the iTunes Music Store in April 2003, selling more than a million songs in the first week. Cumulative iPod unit sales are now in the ballpark of 320 million over the past 10 years.

A lot has happened since then, but it all started with the iPod. The operating system has evolved into iOS, which now drives roughly 70% of Apple’s revenue, while the entire company itself transitioned from a computer maker into a mobile device company. Meanwhile, the hardware continued to grow into the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad segments, in addition to other offspring in the iPod family like the shuffle and nano.

It’s no stretch to describe the iPod as the most important product in Apple’s tumultuous history. If the music player had proved to be a dismal failure, chances are Apple wouldn’t be the technological powerhouse it has become today and its shares wouldn’t be enjoying a return north of 4,400% after the stock closed at a split-adjusted $9.07 on that day.

Happy birthday, iPod. I’m afraid I didn’t get you anything.

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