Can You Guess Apples Most-Revolutionary Product (Hint: Its Not the iPhone)

Recently discontinued, Apple's iPod Classic was the first iteration of Apple's most-revolutionary product line. Source: Flickr user Carl Berkeley

If you follow Apple today, you know its star product is the iPhone. For example, last fiscal year the product provided nearly 56% of Apple's revenue, growing 12% year over year and topping the $100 billion mark. After its 2007 launch, the iPhone quickly became Apple's most-important product. But when it was announced, the iPhone leaned heavily upon the success of another ground-breaking product.

Current CEO Tim Cook once noted, "[m]usic runs deep in Apple's DNA," so it's no surprise the iPhone was designed to and packaged as a phone combined with Apple's most revolutionary product: the iPod.

A revolutionary productWhen former CEO Steve Jobs took the stage that January night in 2007, before announcing the iPhone he took some time to address Apple's past. Specifically, he pointed out the Macintosh's launch in 1984 and the aforementioned iPod in 2001 as revolutionary products. Jobs further stated, correctly, the iPod changed the entire music industry.

But perhaps more telling was the way Jobs positioned the iPhone [emphasis added]:

It may not command much respect now, but the iPod's importance cannot be overstated. In addition to being perhaps the biggest selling point for Apple's initial iPhone concept, the iPod changed the way we bought and consumed music. As such, I feel Apple's iPod was its most revolutionary product.

Don't believe me, ask a major record labelFor the best example of how Apple's iPod, and supporting iTunes media player, has disrupted the music industry, ask a major record label. If you've been paying attention lately you'll notice there a fewer labels now than when before the iPod's release. Before the turn of the century there were six major labels: Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony, BMG, Universal Music Group, and PolyGram. Under competition from illegal downloads, PolyGram was acquired by UMG in 1999.

Initially wary of working together to form a digital solution, the record companies aggressively pushed back against illegal downloaders without offering a competing, legal product. Apple, sensing a changing market, shrewdly offered its iTunes platform along with its iPod player and acquired substantive market share in the process. Record labels continued to suffer in the digital world, consolidating among a mature and pressured industry, and now there are only three major labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group.

How soon we're forgottenAs always with technology, new and competing products relegate once-revolutionary ones to the dustbin of history. And although Apple's iPod isn't quite dead yet, it is getting close. A combination of cannibalization from the aforementioned iPhone and iPad, along with the rise of streaming-based music services like Pandora, Spotify, and even Apple's iTunes Radio, has contributed heavily to the iPod's demise.

As of Apple's last quarter, the company stopped reporting its iPod revenues as an individual product -- putting the player in its "other products" category -- to de-emphasize its importance. But make no mistake -- the iPod was Apple's most revolutionary product, providing a blueprint for the iPhone and iPad while disrupting the entire music industry in the process.

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Jamal Carnette owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Pandora Media. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Pandora Media. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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