Inventing the iPod: How ‘actually large dangers’ paid off for Apple

Whereas becoming a member of Apple, the world’s most precious firm, looks as if a no brainer immediately, issues had been totally different again in 2001. That is when CEO Steve Jobs demanded — not requested — that Tony Fadell be part of the corporate to create a groundbreaking machine. However the man who would go on to invent the iPod initially balked on the thought.  

“I used to be like, ‘whoa whoa,'” Fadell tells me throughout a Zoom interview to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the iPod on Oct. 23. “Again then to go to Apple you needed to be fairly nuts.”

In early 2001 whereas he was growing his personal MP3 participant, Fadell was tapped as a advisor by Apple, who requested him to provide you with totally different prototypes for a digital music participant that may work with the corporate’s simply introduced iTunes software program. He clearly made an impression on Jobs. “We’re constructing this, and also you’re now going to affix us to construct it,” Fadell recalled Jobs saying. 

In fact, Fadell ultimately agreed and led the crew that constructed probably the most important merchandise in Apple’s historical past — one that’s nonetheless obtainable on Apple’s web site (albeit in a vastly totally different kind). The iPod turned an organization combating gross sales and a tiny sliver of the private pc market right into a shopper electronics powerhouse. It additionally revolutionized the digital music enterprise, successfully destroying CDs and turning Apple’s iconic white MP3 gamers, and their ubiquitous white headphones, into a standing image.

Most significantly, a lot of the early work on the iPod paved the highway for the iPhone, Apple’s subsequent groundbreaking product. The iPhone modified just about the whole lot about how we stay and work together with our cellular units and made Apple, now value $2.42 trillion, essentially the most helpful firm on the planet. 

Fadell, who adopted up his iPod success by founding sensible residence product maker Nest Labs (later acquired by Google), talked me by the “loopy” early days of growth on the iPod, why he thinks it succeeded and the way it in some way endured the take a look at of time. That is his story. 

Apple declined so as to add something to the story. 

Only a consulting gig

Fadell, 52, wore a loose-fitting olive polo shirt and a pair of AirPods Max and spoke animatedly in our video chat. The veteran of Silicon Valley, who had stints at Philips Electronics and Apple spinoff Basic Magic earlier than taking up the Apple gig, recalled these early days. 

When Apple govt Jon Rubinstein, who had been tasked with making a music participant, got here knocking in early 2001, Fadell was already engaged on his personal startup, Fuse Programs, with the aim of making a mainstream MP3 participant. It was a nascent market, with greater than a dozen gamers from totally different corporations together with Inventive Labs and RCA. The issue: Gross sales of the units, which value a number of hundred {dollars} apiece, solely totaled 500,000 models in 2000, based on the Client Electronics Affiliation. Fuse itself confronted loads of rejection. Nonetheless, Fadell noticed the Apple consulting gig as an opportunity to maintain his personal challenge alive. 

“I will go in and seek the advice of,” he stated. “I will make some cash and maintain my firm going.”

He spent roughly seven weeks researching totally different choices for a digital music participant, pulling analysis from his personal firm. Finally, he constructed three mockups fabricated from Styrofoam, and used his grandfather’s fishing weights to provide them the correct amount of heft. 

On the finish of March 2001, he offered them to Steve Jobs. Apple veteran Stan Ng had labored with Fadell to organize a stack of papers for the presentation — this was earlier than the times of slideshows — and ready him for each Jobs and his popularity for an explosive mood. “These tales had been ingrained in my mind, burned into my mind, so I am moving into nervous,” Fadell stated. 

Jobs instantly took the stack of papers, riffled by the pages and shortly tossed them apart. “Here is what I need to do,” Fadell recalled Jobs saying, hijacking the dialog and forcing them to dive proper in. 


Tony Fadell, inventor of the iPod.

Composite by Sarah Tew/CNET

When presenting the fashions, Fadell did as Ng coached, displaying off the worst mannequin first, then the second and, lastly, his favourite because the final possibility.  

Jobs seized on it instantly.

“Steve picked it up and he is like, ‘we’re constructing this and also you’re now going to affix us to construct it,’ and I used to be like ‘whoa whoa,'” Fadell stated. 

It is simple to neglect that Apple leaping into this market wasn’t a sure-fire guess. The corporate’s gross sales, which got here from its Mac computer systems, had been on the decline, and Apple had posted a lack of $195 million within the prior quarter. 

Fadell, who spent the previous decade engaged on units with “restricted success,” wasn’t certain he might undergo disappointment once more by constructing an MP3 participant nobody would purchase. 

No shock, however Jobs obtained his method. 

‘Holy shit, is that this going to work?’

After a number of weeks of negotiations with Jobs, Fadell joined Apple in April 2001 and assembled a crew made up of Fuse and Basic Magic staff to place collectively what would grow to be the iPod. The challenge instantly confronted an uphill problem. The crew wanted to work with a number of new parts, together with a model new exhausting drive from Toshiba that Rubinstein, who oversaw the entire challenge, recognized as the important thing ingredient for the iPod. 

Different breakthroughs included new software program for the consumer interface and a then-new type of lithium ion pack, giving the machine 10 hours of battery life that far exceeded anything out there. 

Additionally they had to determine put that Toshiba drive — a (now) old style spinning-disk sort, susceptible to break if mishandled — into a conveyable machine that may be shoved into pockets, dropped on the bottom and thrown onto tables. On high of that, his crew needed to combine Apple’s FireWire file switch know-how so folks might shortly switch their songs. 

“There have been a number of ‘Holy shit, is that this going to work?’ type of moments,” he stated. “We actually did not know.”

All Fadell knew was that he needed to get this factor out earlier than Christmas 2001. That is a tall order, contemplating it takes about 18 months to develop a brand new smartphone immediately. Fadell stated he actually obtained began in Could — with a launch simply 5 months later. 

“It was nonstop, seven days per week,” he stated. 

Fadell’s crew labored with the commercial design group, led by famed Apple designer Jony Ive, to finalize the look of the iPod. As a result of the following wave of Macs would embrace white and clear plastic, Apple took the identical design language and utilized it to the iPod. 

Alongside the way in which, Fadell noticed two different initiatives at Apple scrapped, which fueled him to maneuver even quicker to complete (he would not touch upon what these initiatives had been). Then got here the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults, freezing the nation whilst he needed to rally the crew in that remaining stretch. “It was completely nuts.”

historical ipods

That unique iPod gave beginning to greater than a dozen successors. 

Apple photos composited by Sarah Tew/CNET

When Jobs unveiled the iPod at an Oct. 23 Apple occasion at its City Corridor amphitheater in Cupertino, California, the machine wasn’t technically finished, based on Fadell. The software program wasn’t completed, and the corporate hadn’t signed off on the manufacturing plan. However Jobs gave that pre-1.0 model out to the media in attendance, together with the 20 CDs containing the music that was preloaded on the machine. 

After the launch, he and his crew went proper again to work. (Reporters who obtained the prerelease iPod had been requested to return them a number of weeks later when model 1.0 was launched to the market.)

None of that stopped the iPod from garnering huge important reward for its recent design and progressive scroll wheel. (“Early observers thought it was a speaker,” Fadell mused.) However after the Mac devoted wolfed it up, the iPod, effectively, hit a bitter observe. 

“After that, it was useless,” Fadell stated. 

The key to the iPod’s success

Which will have been Fadell being a bit melodramatic — Apple reportedly offered 125,000 models in that preliminary vacation stretch — however these gross sales weren’t going to show the corporate round. The willingness to maintain going was the important a part of a heart-to-heart dialog Fadell had with Jobs that satisfied him to affix the corporate.

Fadell requested Apple’s visionary chief if he was keen to go the gap with the iPod, not simply investing on this first unit, however to decide to a household of merchandise. Fadell had been by sufficient situations through which an organization cancels the primary product 9 months in as a result of it did not need to spend money on the following one. In Fadell’s thoughts, it took three generations to get the ball rolling.  

“Lots of people cease halfway by the journey, and I needed to ensure we weren’t going to do this,” he stated. 

Jobs instructed Fadell he was going to throw advertising {dollars} on the iPod, pulling sources from its core Mac enterprise. And though gross sales of the unique iPod and the follow-up model did not gentle any fires, Jobs adopted by. 

“He held up his facet of the enterprise, and the remainder is historical past,” he stated. 

It wasn’t till the iPod hit its third era in 2003, full with a glossy redesign, that it started to take off as a mass market phenomenon. Fadell stated he and Jobs frequently pushed one another to take every model additional, and he famous that Apple had grow to be the most important shopper of NAND flash reminiscence when the iPod Nano got here out. 

Steve Jobs introduces the original iPod

Steve Jobs introducing the third-generation iPod.  

Getty Photos

“We had this cycle, this heartbeat, each 12 months,” he stated. “We took some actually large dangers to hit it repeatedly. We weren’t enjoying it secure. We by no means rested on our laurels.”

The iPod additionally obtained one other enhance in April 2003, when Apple launched the iTunes Music Retailer, giving folks a method to purchase music from a catalog of 200,000 digital songs somewhat than having to tear their very own CDs. 

There had been different digital music gamers earlier than, however the iPod modified the whole lot. It not solely legitimized the class, it completely dominated it with greater than 80% of the market. Alongside the way in which, Apple confirmed off its advertising prowess and created iconic adverts  (bear in mind the iPod silhouette commercials?) to pitch the music and its participant. Jobs additionally paired up with rock band U2 in 2004 on a special-edition, black and purple model of the iPod with Bono and The Edge available for the introduction. 

Apple's original iPod

The unique iPod.

Connie Guglielmo/CNET

By 2007, a bit greater than 5 years after that unique launch, Apple offered its 100 millionth iPod. The enterprise peaked in 2008 with gross sales of 54.8 million models, based on Statista. Fadell was concerned with 18 iterations of the iPod. 

By 2005, Fadell stated Apple was already wanting on the aggressive risk of cellphones, which began packing in music gamers and cameras. His crew performed with prototypes that included a full-screen iPod with a digital click on wheel and that basically mixed an iPod Traditional and its wheel with a telephone. The Mac crew had individually constructed a large capacitive touchscreen the scale of a pingpong desk. Fadell stated a mashup of all three ultimately led to the iPhone, which was launched in 2007.

And Apple modified the world of know-how once more. 

Time machine

Apple nonetheless sells an iPod — a $199 iPod Contact that appears extra like an iPhone than that unique music participant — which stands as a testomony to its longevity. 

Fadell, who had a hand in each the iPod Contact and the primary three generations of the iPhone, left Apple in 2008, and in 2010 began Nest, which 4 years later he offered to Google for $3.2 billion. Right this moment, he serves as principal at Future Form, an advisory and funding agency that works with engineers on totally different sides of know-how. 

Nest Labs CEO Tony Fadell at LeWeb 2013

Fadell, then CEO of Nest Labs, talking at LeWeb 2013.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Fadell sometimes goes again to his previous iPod. It is loaded with ’90s and early 2000s different music, songs from the Seattle grunge scene, and The White Stripes, who hail from his hometown of Detroit and broke out round that point. 

Fittingly, it is a type of monument to that loopy stretch when he and his crew scrambled to construct a product that was largely meant to serve the iTunes software program, however ended up revolutionizing a market and supercharging Apple’s place within the tech world. 

“It is a window of time of my music library, and so you allow it that method,” he stated. “You type of jack in and you are like, ‘I am excellent again to early 2000s music.’ It is type of like a extremely nice mixtape.”

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