In the 80’s it was the cassette Walkman; in the 90s it was the Disc-man to CD. And with the new century came a new way of consuming music: a digital standard called MP3. With this technology, the MP3 player was born for the new audiences of the 21st century with much greater autonomy and digital sound. And Apple, which had already launched iTunes in 2000, revolutionized the sector on October 23, 2001 with the launch of its iPod.
The walkman of the 21st century
Under the idea of bringing out its own digital music player, Apple left its mark on the iPod style, which was unlike any other MP3 player on the market. In fact, its appearance later influenced the coming iPhone. And immediately, those from Cupertino made their device evolve during that first decade of the 21st century, changing the physical interface with buttons arranged in a circle for a tactile and at the same time pressable ‘wheel’ that was a novelty at the time.
But there was another physical and technological element that differentiated it and made it exclusive to Apple at the same time: the fact that the iPod was not compatible with the Windows operating system and therefore with millions of computers. This gave it, as we say, enormous exclusivity while preventing it from being massively adopted by the general public.
The reason? Steve Jobs didn’t want it to be.
An MP3 player but intuitive
Tony Fadell, also known as the father of the iPod, this week published his new book, called Build, in which he tells the story of his 30 years of work in Silicon Valley companies. Y in an interview with Jon Fortt for the CNBC siteFadell shared more details about the early stages of development of the iPod and iPhone, as well as the controversial decisions of Steve Jobs.
Fadell was hired by Apple in 2001 to help the company develop its music strategy, which of course included the iPod. As he mentioned in the interview, before the iPod there had been multiple MP3 players, and they had become quite popular. However, none of them were intuitive for people who “just wanted to play MP3s”.
The idea inside Apple was bring that MP3 player experience to the masses. After all, in the words of the engineer, “everyone likes music, the public is everywhere”. However, unlike its competitors, the iPod had to be easy to use, with good battery life, fast data synchronization and support for 1,000 songs, an element that was used as one of its promotional tools.
“Over my dead body”
According to Fadell, this was one of the reasons that led Apple to use FireWire technology instead of USB and implement a different port than usual on its iPod: the original USB standard was very slow, with speeds of up to 12 Mbps, while FireWire was already capable of transferring more than 100 Mbps back then, so sticking this port in and not a more standard one made sense. However, there was something else behind this decision.
The first two generations of the iPod were not compatible with Windows PCs. To transfer songs to an iPod, the user needed a Mac. And this was so because the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, wanted it that way: a new, different and exclusive device. But of course, the global installed base of Mac computers was much smaller in 2001 than Windows computers, so Fadell insisted to Jobs from day one that “We have to make sure it’s going to work with Windows.”
Jobs’ response? “Over my dead body, never.”
iPod, el ‘game changer’
Jobs believed that the iPod would convince Windows users to switch to the Mac. But a look at the data from the time indicates that the number of users who bought Macs because of the iPod was never significant. And of course this affected iPod sales and expansion, as if you didn’t have a Mac, the investment was double. And although they were not the same, MP3 players were a more viable alternative.
Still, Steve Jobs was against the idea of making the product compatible with any PC. It was then that Fadell and the iPod team contacted journalist Walt Mossberg, who was also a friend of Jobs, to help them convince him that the iPod was compatible with Windows. Jobs didn’t want to be wrong, but his friend Mossberg helped him see that making the iPod compatible with computers and PCs running Windows would be the right way for the device to succeed.
The result of when they got Steve Jobs to change his mind was that the iPod began to go from being an exclusive Apple device to a global phenomenon, and from there to the history of technology and also of music.