Electronics Design Chain’s Erik Sherman examines the design chain involved with the creation of Apple’s iPod in a new article entitled Inside the Apple iPod design triumph. While Apple’s confidentiality agreements with its parts suppliers prevented Sherman from being able to talk with most of the companies involved about the iPod directly, his interviews provide some insight about the general process involved with the iPod’s creation.
Sherman said that, unlike most other Apple products, principal aspects of the design of the iPod originated from outside of Apple — the platform and reference design, for example, came from Santa Clara, Calif.-based PortalPlayer. “It appears that Apple picked PortalPlayer because its design expertise yielded the highest quality of sound,” said Sherman.
One expert explained that the iPod was designed “from the outside in,” helping to determine the planar lithium battery and the 1.8-inch Toshiba hard disk drive, as well as the layered design of the components.
“There’s not a lot of unused volume,” said Portintelligent Inc.’s David Carey, president of the Austin, Texas-based product and technology intelligence firm.
Sherman suggested that Apple may have saved battery life and space by designing its own custom integrated circuits for use on the iPod’s circuit board, but at a significantly higher cost and higher risk. Instead the company used off-the-shelf components from various manufacturers ranging from Wolfson Microelectronics Corp, Texas Instruments, Linear Technologies and others. This decision was made, said Carey, to reduce the likelihood of design flaws and the costs involved in original chip design and fabrication.
“It would be a huge mistake to assume that all the design work happened elsewhere and that Apple had no substantial input,” said Sherman, who noted that a reference design is far from the same thing as a finished product. Apple “hit a home run,” according to Wolfson vice president of marketing Julian Hayes, whose digital to analog stereo converter is used in the iPod design, especially when it comes to the user interface for the iPod.
“No doubt subsequent versions of the iPod will yield a revised design chain as different components and optimizations are discovered and needed. But for now, Apple’s first design chain strategy and product have been a success,” concluded Sherman.