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The iPod was no sure thing, but Steve Jobs insisted

Whereas becoming a member of Apple, the world’s most useful firm, looks as if a no brainer in the present day, issues have been completely 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 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 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 hitch us to construct it,” Fadell recalled Jobs saying. 

After all, Fadell ultimately agreed and led the staff 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 type). The iPod turned an organization battling 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 street for the iPhone, Apple’s subsequent groundbreaking product. The iPhone modified nearly every thing about how we dwell and work together with our cell gadgets and made Apple, now price $2.42 trillion, essentially the most precious firm on this planet. 

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 growth on the iPod, why he thinks it succeeded and the way it by some means 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 Common Magic earlier than taking over 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 objective of making a mainstream MP3 participant. It was a nascent market, with greater than a dozen gamers from completely different firms together with Artistic Labs and RCA. The issue: Gross sales of the gadgets, which price a number of hundred {dollars} apiece, solely totaled 500,000 items in 2000, in accordance with the Client 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 will 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 fabricated from Styrofoam, and used his grandfather’s fishing weights to present them the correct quantity of heft. 

Tony Fadell, inventor of the ipod.

Composite by Sarah Tew/CNET

On the finish of March 2001, he introduced them to Steve Jobs. Apple veteran Stan Ng had labored with Fadell to arrange 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 moving 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 need to do,” Fadell recalled Jobs saying, hijacking the dialog and forcing them to dive proper in. 

When presenting the fashions, Fadell did as Ng coached, exhibiting 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 positive he might undergo disappointment once more by constructing an MP3 participant nobody would purchase. 

No shock, however Jobs obtained his means. 

‘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 staff made up of Fuze and Common Magic workers to place collectively what would turn into the iPod. The undertaking instantly confronted an uphill problem. The staff wanted to work with lots of new parts, together with a model new laborious 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 out there. 

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

“There have been lots 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 in the present day. Fadell stated he actually obtained began in Could — with a launch simply 5 months later. 

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

It is noteworthy that Fadell, and never famed Apple designer Jony Ive, got here up with the design of the iPod, going again to that unique pitch to Jobs. Ive was behind the iMac and MacBook redesigns. As a result of the subsequent wave of Macs would embrace white and clear plastic, Fadell used the identical design language and utilized it to the iPod. 

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

When Jobs unveiled the iPod at an Oct. 23 Apple occasion at its City Corridor amphitheater in Cupertino, California, the system wasn’t technically carried out, in accordance with 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.

Steve Jobs introducing the unique iPod (which wasn’t 100% carried out but). 

Getty Pictures

After the launch, he and his staff went proper again to work. (Reporters who obtained the prerelease iPod have 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 large crucial reward for its recent design and progressive scroll wheel. (“Early observers thought it was a speaker,” Fadell mused.) However after the Mac trustworthy devoured it up, the iPod, effectively, hit a bitter be aware. 

“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 prepared to go the space 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 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 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 needed to ensure we weren’t going to try this,” he stated. 

Jobs instructed Fadell he was going to throw advertising {dollars} on the iPod, pulling sources from its core Mac enterprise. And regardless that 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 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 regularly pushed one another to take every model additional, and he famous that Apple had turn into the most important shopper of NAND flash reminiscence when the iPod Nano got here out. 

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


Fadell was concerned with 18 generations of the iPod, which turned the corporate round. 

Apple pictures composited by Sarah Tew/CNET

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

There had been different digital music gamers earlier than, however the iPod modified every thing. 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 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 readily available for the introduction. 

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

By 2005, Fadell stated Apple was already trying on the aggressive menace of cellphones, which began packing in music gamers and cameras. His staff performed with prototypes that included a full-screen iPod with a digital click on wheel and that basically mixed an iPod Basic and its wheel with a telephone. The Mac staff had individually constructed an enormous 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 Touch that looks more 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 sold to Google for $3.2 billion. At present, he serves as principal at Future Form, an advisory and funding agency that works with engineers on completely different aspects of know-how. 


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

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Fadell often goes again to his outdated 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 form of monument to that loopy stretch when he and his staff 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 permit it that means,” 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 extremely nice mixtape.”

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