How People Talked About iTunes When it First Launched

By Matt Novak on at

It’s official. Apple has announced that it would begin killing off iTunes, one of the company’s most important software products ever. And, to be honest, there isn’t much love lost, since iTunes has become widely reviled by most users in recent years. But that wasn’t always the case.

What did people think of iTunes when it first came out in January of 2001, even before the iPod was announced later that year? People were overall pretty happy with the music player. Even if competing music players still had a leg up in some ways.

The Associated Press review from March of 2001 is quite the time capsule, especially for people who perhaps remember the early 21st century with a bit of youthful nostalgia:

Itunes is a small but feature-laden program that organises MP3 files and lets you rip CDs and burn the music onto CD-R or CD-RW discs, and it does it fast.

The program ships with all of Apple’s new G4 lines, including PowerBooks. G3 owners can download it from Apple’s Web site for free.

At less than 3 megabytes in size, iTunes comes in quickly, even on a 56K modem connection.

Remember 56K modems? I certainly do. But it gets even better if you have fond memories of OS 9:

It’s best to have System 9.1 running to get the full speed iTunes promises, but System 9.04 will work as well. System 8.6 doesn’t support it, but there are hacks available to make it work. Apple recommends the program only be run on Macintoshes made since August 1998.

But the next part of the AP article is really the best reminder that you’re reading something from almost 20 years ago:

The interface is simple and intuitive, without any of the visual attractiveness of programs like MusicMatch Inc.’s Jukebox. What’s impressive is the file management and the CD burning speed.

Simple and intuitive? Precisely zero people have described iTunes as simple and intuitive in the past decade. And don’t even get us started about file management in iTunes.

Another plus is iTunes radio feature. Using the directory at Kerbango.com, Apple has compiled several format-ready Webcasts featuring music by everybody from Mozart to neo-country folkster Kate Campbell.

I ran iTunes on a G4 with a 533MHz processor, 128 megabytes of RAM and an internal Sony CD-RW drive. Apple says the configuration is standard issue on all models sold since January.

ITunes will work on nearly 35 third party CD-RW drives, the company says, but the list is being updated.

For those of you who are too young to know what any of that means, CD-RW stands for “re-writable” CD drives. It was a big deal to be able to write a compact disc with your own music or data, and CD-RW drives kept your costs down because you were able to erase the discs and record on them again. The only problem was that some CD players had difficulty reading them.

The AP article explained that iTunes would automatically search your computer for songs that you had already ripped. The reviewers noted it was very helpful to see iTunes burns CDs “in the background so you can Net surf or work while it’s quietly copying music to CD.” Net surf!

Eight minutes later I had 18 songs and a CD that played not only in my 12-year-old Technics CD player but also my super inexpensive Koss in-dash CD player.

The program is also designed to move MP3s easily to MP3 players and has built-in support for players from makers including HipZip by Iomega (which I used), CreativeLabs and SONICblue.

But the AP review wasn’t without its minor criticisms for iTunes:

The only flaws I can find in iTunes are its lack of visuals.

The problem comes bundled with a feature that spits out swirling, swooping colors while you’re listening to music but nothing like what is featured in plug-ins for MacAST, a $24.95 program that plays MP3s only.

Also, iTune's appearance is strikingly similar to iMovie, sort of a brushed aluminum. Having a choice of skins (Glossary: skins are varying visual interfaces for a single program) would be nice.

What does brushed aluminium look like? This:

The iTunes interface as it first appeared in 2001. Image: MacRumors/Ars Technica

The first iTunes release was generally well received, but iTunes 2, which was released in November of that same year, had a less than stellar roll out.

Farhad Manjoo, who’s now at the New York Times, wrote about a big hiccup for iTunes 2 back when he was at Wired in November of 2001:

SOME MACINTOSH USERS who rushed to download the latest version of iTunes – Apple’s popular digital-music player –were singing a song of woe on Friday. A bug in the installation procedure caused the application to completely delete their computers’ hard drives.

Apple issued an alert and a fixed version of iTunes 2 on Saturday morning, and the company urged people to remain calm.

But on Mac discussion boards, few people were calm.

“Feel like throwing this piece of #### through their office window,” wrote James Glasgow on Apple’s discussion boards. “This is the last straw.”

In the alert, Apple said the error is “highly unlikely to affect most users.”

And while it won’t be news to old Mac diehards, iTunes was only available on Apple computers when it first came out. When iTunes came to Windows in 2003, it was a big deal.

How big of a deal? Steve Jobs announced that people would think hell had frozen over, providing this perfect image on October 16, 2003, in San Francisco after making the announcement:

Steve Jobs in 2003. Photo: AP

“This is a feature a lot of people thought we’d never have until... hell froze over,” Jobs said to laughter. But that was important for Apple since Windows had roughly 95 per cent market share in the U.S. back in 2003. Yes, you read that correctly. Today Windows has roughly 35 per cent market share.

The emergence of iTunes and eventually the iTunes Store in 2003 helped change the music industry forever. But it’s easy to forget that iTunes was also an attempt to capitalise on massive piracy brought about by file sharing sites like Napster. And even after iTunes entered the scene, young people were reluctant to pay for music unless they really had to.

People who spoke with Chicago’s RedEye alternative daily newspaper in 2004 really painted the picture for what it was like at the time, explaining that “regardless of the format, some say iTunes isn’t their first stop for digital music.”

“I would usually not pay for music, but if I can’t find it, then I would download it from iTunes,” 20-year-old college student Rebecca Berdel told RedEye in 2004.

RedEye noted that Berdel had about 200 songs that she’d pirated and roughly 30 that she’d purchased from iTunes.

“I’ve had my MP3 player for six years, and I have 7,000 songs on it,” a 28-year-old who wanted to remain anonymous told RedEye. “That’s $7,000 (£5.5k) worth of songs.”

RIP iTunes. You’ll be missed. Or, at least, some version of you from two decades ago will be remembered fondly.