Inventing the iPod: How ‘really big risks’ paid off for Apple

Whereas becoming a member of Apple, the world’s most precious firm, looks as if a no brainer at present, issues have been completely different again in 2001. That is when CEO Steve Jobs demanded — not requested — that Tony Fadell be a part of the corporate to create a groundbreaking system. 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 give you completely different prototypes for a digital music participant that might 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 hitch us to construct it,” Fadell recalled Jobs saying. 

In fact, Fadell finally agreed and led the group that constructed some of the important merchandise in Apple’s historical past — one that’s still available on Apple’s site (albeit in a vastly completely different kind). The iPod turned an organization scuffling with gross sales and a tiny sliver of the private laptop 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 all the pieces about how we stay and work together with our cell gadgets and made Apple, now value $2.42 trillion, essentially the most beneficial firm on the earth. 

Fadell, who adopted up his iPod success by founding smart home product maker Nest Labs (later acquired by Google), talked me by way of the “loopy” early days of improvement on the iPod, why he thinks it succeeded and the way it in some way endured the check 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 Common Magic earlier than taking up the Apple gig, recalled these early days. 

When Apple government 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 Techniques, with the aim of making a mainstream MP3 participant. It was a nascent market, with greater than a dozen gamers from completely different firms together with Inventive Labs and RCA. The issue: Gross sales of the gadgets, which price just a few hundred {dollars} apiece, solely totaled 500,000 items in 2000, in response to the Shopper Electronics Affiliation. Fuse itself confronted loads of rejection. Nonetheless, Fadell noticed the Apple consulting gig as an opportunity to maintain his personal undertaking alive. 

“I’ll go in and seek the advice of,” he stated. “I am going to make some cash and hold my firm going.”

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

On the finish of March 2001, he introduced 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 have been ingrained in my mind, burned into my mind, so I am stepping into nervous,” Fadell stated. 

Jobs instantly took the stack of papers, riffled by way of the pages and shortly tossed them apart. “Here is what I wish 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 choice.  

Jobs seized on it instantly.

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

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

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

No shock, however Jobs bought his manner. 

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

After just a few weeks of negotiations with Jobs, Fadell joined Apple in April 2001 and assembled a group made up of Fuse and Common Magic workers to place collectively what would change into the iPod. The undertaking instantly confronted an uphill problem. The group wanted to work with a whole lot of new elements, together with a model new arduous drive from Toshiba that Rubinstein, who oversaw the entire undertaking, recognized as the important thing ingredient for the iPod. 

Different breakthroughs included new software program for the consumer interface and a then-new sort of lithium ion pack, giving the system 10 hours of battery life that far exceeded the rest available in the market. 

In addition they had to determine find out how to put that Toshiba drive — a (now) old school spinning-disk kind, susceptible to wreck if mishandled — into a conveyable system that might be shoved into pockets, dropped on the bottom and thrown onto tables. On prime of that, his group needed to combine Apple’s FireWire file switch know-how so individuals might shortly switch their songs. 

“There have been a whole lot of ‘Holy shit, is that this going to work?’ sort 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 at present. Fadell stated he actually bought began in Could — with a launch simply 5 months later. 

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

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

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

historical ipods

That authentic iPod gave delivery to greater than a dozen successors. 

Apple photographs 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 system wasn’t technically finished, in response to 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 system. 

After the launch, he and his group went proper again to work. (Reporters who bought the prerelease iPod have been requested to return them just a few weeks later when model 1.0 was launched to the market.)

None of that stopped the iPod from garnering huge crucial reward for its contemporary design and revolutionary scroll wheel. (“Early observers thought it was a speaker,” Fadell mused.) However after the Mac trustworthy wolfed it up, the iPod, properly, hit a bitter word. 

“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 sold 125,000 units in that preliminary vacation stretch — however these gross sales weren’t going to show the corporate round. The willingness to maintain going was the crucial a part of a heart-to-heart dialog Fadell had with Jobs that satisfied him to hitch 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 way of sufficient eventualities during which an organization cancels the primary product 9 months in as a result of it did not wish to spend money on the subsequent one. In Fadell’s thoughts, it took three generations to get the ball rolling.  

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

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

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

It wasn’t till the iPod hit its third era in 2003, full with a modern 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 change into 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 massive dangers to hit it time and again. We weren’t taking part in it protected. We by no means rested on our laurels.”

The iPod additionally bought one other increase in April 2003, when Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, giving individuals a manner to purchase music from a catalog of 200,000 digital songs reasonably than having to tear their very own CDs. 

There had been different digital music gamers earlier than, however the iPod modified all the pieces. It not solely legitimized the class, it completely dominated it with greater than 80% of the market. Alongside the best way, Apple confirmed off its advertising and marketing prowess and created iconic ads  (remember the iPod silhouette commercials?) to pitch the music and its player. Jobs additionally paired up with rock band U2 in 2004 on a special-edition, black and red version of the iPod with Bono and The Edge available for the introduction. 

Apple's original iPod

The unique iPod.

Connie Guglielmo/CNET

By 2007, slightly greater than 5 years after that authentic launch, Apple sold its 100 millionth iPod. The enterprise peaked in 2008 with gross sales of 54.8 million items, in response to 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 group performed with prototypes that included a full-screen iPod with a digital click on wheel and that primarily mixed an iPod Traditional and its wheel with a cellphone. The Mac group had individually constructed a large capacitive touchscreen the scale of a pingpong desk. Fadell stated a mashup of all three finally 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 Touch that looks more like an iPhone than that authentic 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 sold to Google for $3.2 billion. Immediately, he serves as principal at Future Form, an advisory and funding agency that works with engineers on completely 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 often goes again to his previous iPod. It is loaded with ’90s and early 2000s various 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 form of monument to that loopy stretch when he and his group scrambled to construct a product that was largely supposed 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 permit it that manner,” he stated. “You sort of jack in and you are like, ‘I am good again to early 2000s music.’ It is sort of like a very nice mixtape.” | Inventing the iPod: How ‘actually massive dangers’ paid off for Apple


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