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How Apple Shipped the iPod in 11 Months

This post is a scripted version of this video.

On October 23rd, 2001, Apple Computer, a company known for its chic, cutting-edge technology – launched a product with an enticing promise: you can carry an entire music collection in your pocket. This product was called "iPod" and what happened next exceeded the company's wildest dreams.

Since its original launch, more than 400 million devices and 35 billion songs have been sold with both digits almost doubling every single year up until 2008, and millions of people inserted the distinctive white buds into their ears. The iPod became not just a product capable of changing our personal behaviors, but a global obsession, a fashion cult, not just the symbol of the young generation but a metaphor for the digital age itself. This pack of cards-sized digital music player, has completely re-shaped not just the way people consume music, but the entire music industry, altering all means of distribution and transforming all legacy media systems, including radio and TV.

A Sales chart for all iPod sales

But behind the illusion of one of Apple's greatest commercial successes and one of the most influential digital gadgets of all time, lies not just a story of unconventional creativity and the combination of extraordinary new technologies, but one which shows how dedication, perseverance, and an incredible sense of urgency allowed a small group of humans to turn a kooky idea into a full-fleshed product in just 11-months.

This is a reconstructed timeline of everything that happened in those 11 months.

The Origin: Napster, MP3.com, and Apple's Digital Hub Strategy

In the second half of the 90s, the digital music industry was booming. By the year 1999, when tens of millions of people were downloading songs on Napster, MP3.com had already lost his first lawsuit against UMG Recordings for “making mechanical copies for commercial use without permission”, and people with Windows computer were burning hundreds of millions of CDs in PC towers, Apple was still nowhere.

But this, was part of a plan. Steve Jobs had planned to announce at MacWorld of next year that Apple would have embarked on what it came to refer to as a Digital Hub strategy.

The idea (in hindsight pretty Microsoft-esque) was to produce the world's greatest portfolio of consumer software on a computer so that the experience of all your other digital gadgets would be enhanced as a result of that. Or better say, the Mac would be the central hub of your “digital universe” adding value and optimizing the experience for all your other adjacent devices.

Digital Hub Strategy

The first one would be iMovie, a spectacularly easy-to-use tool to transform camcorder clips into home movies and digitally store them on your computer. iMovie provided a far better and more intuitive experience than Adobe and made high-end cameras much more valuable as a whole.

So, why not apply the same thing to the digital music ecosystem?

Apple’s Head of Applications Sina Tamaddon — who, a year prior, had acquired a company called Macromedia to then build what became iMovies - was now acquiring SoundJam, a company founded by Jeff Robbin and Bill Kincaid (both ex-Apple guys), to develop a digital jukebox for Mac, that would then go down in history as iTunes.

But, when Jobs looked at the music-players available on the market, soon realized that well, that there’s very little to “enhance” since “they’re all crap”. They generally held too little music, had impenetrable user interfaces, and looked like cheap plastic toys given to losers at carnival games. After all, an awesome digital jukebox could be only SO useful if the means of actually hearing digital music was crummy.

So it all fell back to long-time Jobs’ friend and Apple's VP of hardware Jon Rubinstein to – in Jobs' own words – “do something about it”.

It is here where the journey officially begins, and here which sets into motion the 11-months timeline where the iPod goes from an unproven idea to a global phenomenon.

November, 2000 – Hard drive, Battery and Display

ipod's hard drives

Rubinstein knew that solving the hard-drive problem was the first important step since most digital-music players were either too heavy (because they used traditional computer hard drives) or too low in storage capacity (because they used flash memory). He was also sure that this Apple MP3 needed to use FireWire – a technology that Apple invented back in 1999 for its top-of-the-line desk computers – to quickly load songs and libraries onto the device. But first, he needed a compatible, sufficiently powerful, and above all, small hard drive.

He started looking around at the IBM Research Lab, where his old friend Nick Donofrio worked as head of research, and learned about a new promising, but still under development, technology: microdrives. But when Rubinstein approached the responsible group asking for a 5GBs prototype, he got laughed at.

A few weeks later he took one of his regular trips to Japan to visit Apple's suppliers. At the end of a routine meeting with Toshiba, the engineers mentioned an experimental microdrive they had in the lab. It was a tiny, 1.8-inch drive (the size of a silver dollar) and with some capacity, but just not enough to go on a PC, so they’re not exactly sure what to do with it.

For Rubinstein, that was the answer to his quest and while his partner Jeff Williams (now Apple COO) was negotiating prices, quantities, and terms of the contract, he started looking for lithium-ion batteries and black and white displays which in Japan were just starting to emerge as the cell-phone industry was taking off. The very same night Jobs approved a $10M check and the initial piece of hardware was secured.

December, 2000 – P68 Project Confirmed and Exploration Team

The journey in the making of the iPod was only getting started, but with a hard drive, battery and display cleared, the form-factor started to become self-evident. This thing was going to have the size of a pack of cards.

The project was officially confirmed under codename P68 or Dulcimer and Rubinstein started assembling an exploration team around it:

  1. Mike Culbert -- an Apple veteran, previously CTO and part of the original Newton project
  2. Stan NG – who had previously worked on Product Marketing for all Macintosh product line
  3. And a bunch of others (but very little information has been found here)

But the team needed a leader – and not just a great operator capable of shipping a final product on an accelerated timeline, but someone with some actual experience in the digital music space.

January, 2001 – Tony Gets Onboard

tony fadell joins apple

One of Apple’s engineering managers told Rubinstein that he might knew the right guy: Anthony Micheal Fadell. Tony has been involved in the original General Magic team, worked for a few years at Phillips where he was responsible for the company's Internet and digital audio strategy and was now building a home digital entertainment with a hard-drive-based jukebox. It’s a match.

So a few days later, Fadell’s phone rang while he was on Colorado's ski slopes. Now – Fadell was developing this music idea with his own company. He had already hired twelve people and was working out a partnership with Samsung. But here, on the other end of the phone, was Jon Rubinstein, telling him to come in and talk about a project at Apple. Fadell realized the magnitude of the opportunity and two weeks later agrees on an 8-weeks contract.

February, 2001 – Solving the Puzzle and PortalPlayer

Rubinstein has figured out some key technology components, but it’s very unclear how and where all these pieces fit together, and - above all - there’s one missing part: the low-level OS. What kind of processor would this device be using?

fadell design components

After a deep look, Fadel found PortalPlayer – a recently born company based in San Jose that had been working on chip design for MP3 players for a number of other companies. PortalPlayer would provide the kind of primitive circuits and low-level OS that Apple could then further extend and customize.

Apple and PortalPlayer found an agreement for quantity, prices, and exclusives – and settled the delivery dates so that the final device could be shipped by Christmas.

April, 2001 – First Prototype and Demo to Jobs

Fast forward 2 months and Fadell has identified all the key technological components, gauged the possible dimensions of the device, and blue-sky the basics of a user interface.

fadell demo to steve jobs

Fadell's contract ended in early April, and a demo was scheduled for him to bring his conclusions to the Apple executive team: Rubinstein, Robbin, Schiller, Ive, and of course Jobs, who had been in contact with Rubinstein on the project but had yet to meet Fadel. The result of 2 months of work converged in the first prototype of an Apple MP3: a box slightly bigger than a tape case with a sharp screen toward the top end and navigational buttons below.

Jobs loved it but Schiller was unsure about the interaction model with ups and down buttons and suggested instead a wheel-shaped contraption on the front with a button in the middle to navigate between libraries, imitating the design of an existing B&O telephone. An ironic twist considering that Apple is the one who ended up registering the patent for it.

So, it’s a definitive go. While Jonny Ive’s team starts to work on the design of the concept, Sina Tomaddon’s team starts to work on the high-level GUI. But there’s still one open question left? Who’s going to build the middleware software that connects the high-level GUI with the low-level OS from PortalPlayer?

May, 2001 – Pixo's Partnership

The answer came straight from Jeff Robbin – ex SoundJam executive and now a lead developer at the P68 team — while he was interviewing another ex-apple engineer: Mike Neil.

jeff robbin ipod team

Neil, then working for a small firm called Pixo, was not interested in the position but he said that his company might have some useful technology.

So, in a couple of days, the Pixo guys organized a demo for Fadell and a deal with Apple was profit.

This kickstarted a 3 months period of collaboration where Pixo built the middleware software and the low-level wiring to connect the low-level OS with the high-level GUI.

To be fair, Apple never officially made any announcements about the iPod’s operating system architecture, and never provided documentation on how it worked internally. So it’s hard to estimate exactly the extent to which Pixo contributed to the project but from architecture diagrams previously shown on their own website apparently a lot.

pixo architecture diagram

Due to Apple’s near paranoia to secrecy, Neil wasn't told what device they were building software for.

Years later Neil said in an interview:

Basically they were trying to disguise the fact that it was this little cigarette case-sized thing; Of course, if you flipped it around and you looked in the back, there was a motherboard that was the size of a quarter in there. So it was pretty obvious that it was going to be a small device.

ipod original fake prototype

As the product made progress and the final user interface started to emerge, Jobs himself got involved in providing feedback and directions on interactions, buttons, menus, and even – font.

Neil revealed in the same interview:

Usually when you work on a software product, you try to schedule a build in the middle of the week, so the testers can test it. But Apple always wanted things on Friday. I think what was happening was, they were giving the build to Steve, who would take it home for the weekend and play with it. Then on Monday, we'd invariably get a whole bunch of requests to change this, tweak that, do all that kind of stuff.

August, 2001 – The iPod played its first son

3 months later and one night of August, the physical Apple MP3 prototype – that by then was still a circuit board containing the hardware chips and hard drive – played its first song: "Groovejet" by Spiller.

September, 2001 – Origin of the name

The name came from one of the freelance copywriters that worked for Apple. As soon as he saw the pure white device, he thought of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the immortal line “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.”

how apple came up with the ipod name

Jobs initially rejected the iPod name, but later came around to it, convinced by his own marketing people along with Lee Clow and James Vincent from TBWA\Chiat\Day, the marketing agency behind the iconic silhouette advertising.

October, 2001 – iPod Revealed at Apple's Music Event

And here – at the Apple Music Event, just 11 months after that initial awkward conversation with Jon Rubinstein – Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod to the world.

steve jobs unveil ipod to Apple Music Event

The Unexpected Virtue of Urgency

After the initial launch, Fadell and the team didn’t slow down the pace of innovation and the ridiculous release cadence. In short order, they reduced the form factor in the successor iPod Nano with the new and most recent 1-inch Fujitsu microdrive, extended the iPod market to the rest of the PC world porting iTunes to Windows, and – for the first time in history – signed off contracts with all the major music record labels.

All of this while keeping an aggressive release schedule, along with the constant focus on new products.

Rubinstein confirmed 10 years later in an interview:

“We always thought that Sony was going to blow us out of the water. It shocked me that year after year that they didn’t deliver something that blew us away. Because by all rights they should have. They had the brand – aside from Sony – they had the Walkman brand and they had the records labels. It should have been a no-brainer for them but for some reason, they never executed. Now, you can’t rely on your competition not executing – that’s a bad strategy, so we always assumed that they were going to kick our butt. And so we had a tremendous sense of urgency, very fast pace, which is why during the four or five years I ran the iPod, we came out with so many different versions, and just kept iterating on all of them.”

While it’s difficult to determine who deserve the most credit for the iPod, or should get the title “Podfather”, considering the debates in interviews, articles, books, and even Wikipedia entries – we can all agree on one thing, with the iPod, Apple wasn’t just about to dramatically change the history of technology and society, but the trajectory of its own path by marking the transition from a “computer” to a “consumer” company, and by building the technology fundamentals and the operational culture necessary to seize the next big opportunity.

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