The iPod: How Apple's legendary portable music player came to be

The iPod isn't the first MP3 player to have hit the market, but it's by far the most successful.

original ipod

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The destiny of Apple changed drastically 10 years ago with the release of a deceptively simple digital music player.

On October 23, 2001, Apple lifted the curtain on the very first iPod, which packed 5GB of music storage into a sleek white box no bigger than a deck of cards.

Macworld’s Jonathan Seff, Rick LePage, and Jason Snell at the iPod unveiling.

Apple chose to unveil its portable digital music player in a low-key special event held on Apple’s campus in Cupertino. The press and Apple fans alike met the iPod with severe skepticism. Pundits openly wondered what business Apple had selling consumer music gadgets. Many proclaimed doom (not the first or last time Apple’s future was called into question, mind you).

By 2004, the iPod became a wildly successful product for Apple, and certain myths and legends sprung up about its creation. When historians 100 years from now recall the legacy of Steve Jobs, they will no doubt mention the iPod in the same breath. But while Jobs had an integral role in the birth of the iPod, no one man created the device. A diverse team of Apple employees and contractors brought the iPod to life.

A twinkle in Jobs’s eye

Apple’s relationship with digital music started innocently enough, from seemingly unrelated events in 1999. That year, Steve Jobs discovered the latent potential of a long-dormant Apple-invented technology: FireWire. The serial bus standard enabled data to be transferred at alarming speeds compared to common standards of the time.

Apple realized that with FireWire, Mac users could transfer videos shot with digital camcorders (which already used the standard) and edit them on their computers. The next round of iMacs, Steve Jobs decided, would contain FireWire ports.

Apple approached creative app giant Adobe to author a simple, consumer-friendly movie editing application, but Adobe declined. That’s when Apple decided to create iMovie and feature the Mac as the center of a “digital hub” strategy, where the Mac served as the nucleus of an ever-expanding digital media universe.

By the late 1990s, digital music had become big news. Illegal file sharing site Napster, in particular, shoved the issue in everyone’s face. Despite the legal issues, it quickly became apparent to most in the tech industry that Internet-downloaded MP3s were the future of music distribution.

Around 2000, Apple realized it had a large hole in its upcoming digital hub strategy when it came to music. To fill that hole, Apple bought the rights to SoundJam MP, a popular Mac MP3 player application, and hired three of its creators to work at Apple. One of these men, Jeff Robbin, would head development of an Apple-branded digital music application.

Robbin’s team simplified SoundJam and added CD-burning features to create iTunes, released in January 2001. As iMovie had done with FireWire-attached camcorders, the iTunes team naturally sought to allow users to transfer songs from iTunes to the portable MP3 players of the day. They had trouble.

The need for the iPod

Behind every successful product lies a problem in search of a solution. The inspirational problem, in the iPod’s case, involved the pitiful state of the young MP3 player market in the late 1990s.

Portable MP3 players had been around since the mid 1990s, but Apple found that everyone on the market offered a lackluster user experience. Steve Jobs had a strong term for gadgets like that: “crap”. Everyone at Apple agreed.

The original iPod, announced on October 23, 2001.

Flash memory-based players of the era held only about a CD’s worth of songs. Hard drive players held far more but were relatively big, heavy, and they sported difficult-to-navigate user interfaces that did not scale well when scrolling through thousands of songs.

Moreover, most portable media players (PMPs) used the pokey USB 1.1 standard to transfer music from a host computer to the player, which made the user wait up to five minutes to transfer a CD’s worth of songs. When moving thousands of songs, the transfer time could shoot up to several hours.

Considering the poor state of the PMP market, Jobs decided that Apple should attempt to create its own MP3 player, one that played well with iTunes and could potentially attract more customers to the Mac platform. He assigned Jon Rubinstein, then Apple’s senior VP of hardware, to the task.

Rubinstein began preliminary research for ideas on how to proceed. From the beginning, he had two ingredients in mind: a speedy FireWire interface to solve the transfer problem, and a particular 1.8-inch 5GB hard drive from Toshiba that could make Apple’s music device smaller than any other hard drive-based player on the market.

With most of Apple’s engineers tied up in Mac-related projects, Rubinstein sought help from outside the company to further determine the feasibility of an Apple music player. Through personal connections, Rubinstein heard about a man with the right qualifications and experience to do the job. He gave him a call in January 2001.

Exploring the possibilities

On that day in January, Tony Fadell happened to be riding on a ski lift when his phone rang. It was Jon Rubinstein calling. He invited Fadell to visit Apple to discuss a potential project, but he kept quiet about its exact nature.

Tony Fadell

Rubinstein felt that Fadell made an ideal choice to explore Apple’s portable digital player options due to Fadell’s ample handheld computing experience. He had worked at General Magic (on an OS for PDAs called Magic Cap) and later at Philips Electronics, where he led the development of a Windows CE-based palmtop computer called the Nino.

At Philips, Fadell had seen the potential of digital audio players through an encounter with Audible, an Internet audiobook vendor that wanted to bring its digital audio products to the Nino. Fadell considered himself a devoted music fan; he enjoyed deejaying events in his off hours, and he fantasized of a day when he didn’t have to drag his bulky collection of CDs between gigs.

He began to wonder if Audible’s approach could be the solution to his problem and brainstormed ways that he could combine digital audio with music. Fadell explored the idea at Philips but found little interest in the ideas among management. After a brief stint at RealNetworks, Fadell left to form his own digital music company called Fuse Systems.

Fuse developed a digital jukebox that would rip CDs to an internal hard drive, but the company had trouble raising funding in a time when venture capitalists fetishized software over hardware. Fadell had received the call from Rubinstein just as Fuse ran out of money.

Fadell went into initial talks with Apple in February 2001, thinking at first that Apple wanted to build a PDA. Soon, Apple offered Fadell a six-week contract as a hardware consultant. Just after signing, Rubinstein revealed Apple’s true intentions.

“Apple thought that they could bring a better [MP3 player] to market and they asked for me to do some designs,” said Fadell in an interview with Macworld. “How could one be built, what kind of components, how much would it cost, and to do all the basic research and design for what was to become the iPod.”

The Philips Nino, a Windows CE-based palmtop computer that Fadell helped develop prior to the iPod.

Apple paired Fadell with Stan Ng, a veteran Apple product marketing manager, to help him mesh with the company’s unique culture. During that six week period, Fadell met with almost everyone he knew in the handheld industry while keeping his true goals secret. He studied competitors’ products and settled on the need for a small, ultra-portable device with a large capacity and long battery life.

Fadell brewed up three prototype designs for a potential Apple music player, each model crafted from foam core boards with rough interface graphics pasted on. Lead fishing weights gave each mock-up the approximate weight of a final device.

“It was all very, very rough,” recalls Fadell. “I only had six weeks and it was only me really doing all the work.”

When his contract expired in mid April 2001, Fadell presented his prototypes to Apple executives, including Steve Jobs, in an important meeting. Fadell purposely offered his two least promising mock-ups to Jobs first (one of which would have used flash memory, the other with removable storage) and hid the third under a decorative bamboo bowl Jobs kept on the conference room table. As Fadell predicted, Jobs liked the third mock-up best.

During the same meeting, Apple’s Senior VP of Worldwide Product Marketing, Phil Schiller, presented mock-ups of a player featuring the now familiar scroll wheel. Schiller personally thought of the idea as a solution to a troubling interface problem at the time.

Other MP3 players used plus and minus buttons that would move, one item at a time, through a list of songs, which would grow tedious if the unit held a thousand songs—basically, you’d have to push the button a thousand times. With a wheel, a quick flick of the finger would navigate through the list at any rate the user wanted—especially since Apple would make the scroll speed accelerate the longer you spun the wheel.

Steve Jobs liked the ideas he saw and offered Fadell a job at Apple to continue his work. After a period of uncertainty, Fadell joined Apple full-time in April 2001. The iPod project—then code-named “P-68”—had officially begun.

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