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The birth of the iPod

Benj Edwards | Oct. 24, 2011
The destiny of Apple changed drastically 10 years ago with the release of a deceptively simple digital music player.

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 every one on the market offered a lackluster user experience. Steve Jobs had a strong term for gadgets like that: "crap". Everyone at Apple agreed.

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 though 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.

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 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.

 

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