”Give me a knockout product, and we’ll knock it out of the park.” Looking back, Steve Jobs’ prescient, if mixed, metaphor — uttered in the first meeting with Apple engineers about what would become the iPod — is one of the great business understatements of all time. Unveiled 10 years ago, on Oct. 23, 2001, the iPod has sold more than 300 million units, and still accounts for nearly 80 percent of the digital audio player market. Since Jobs’ death on Oct. 5, he’s been rightly praised as a visionary. To try to reduce his many culture-shaping achievements to any one device would be folly. Yet surely the iPod stands as the keystone of Apple’s iEmpire. Without the device — which transformed multiple industries and altered the way we consume media — there would be no iTunes Store, no iPhone, and no iPad. (And possibly no Apple either.) But according to those who were instrumental in the iPod’s creation, it was an improbable success.
In 2001, the music industry was in mortal danger. Online music sharing had abruptly gone from being a tech-geek hobby to a mainstream activity. Everyone was pirating music. Adam Curry, ex-MTV VJ and later a creator of podcasting, recalls, ”The MP3 format was a breakthrough…. Then we had the first iterations of always-on broadband, and Napster came into play. It was a perfect storm.”
At Apple, things weren’t much rosier. Following Jobs’ return in 1997, the company had a bona fide hit with the iMac in 1998. But that hadn’t translated into a meaningful increase in market share. ”People still considered the company to be dead in the water,” says Jeremy Horwitz, editor in chief of Apple news source iLounge.com.
That’s when hardware engineer Tony Fadell got a call. After working at Philips and RealNetworks, Fadell had started the company Fuse to create a jukebox-style MP3 player. (At the time, a dozen or so existed, but they were clunky to use or held few songs.) He’d tried to market his idea to several big electronics companies including IBM, but was unable to attract interest. Then Apple contacted him: ”They told me, ‘We want to be able to make an Apple version of an MP3 player — what can you come up with?”’
In March 2001, Fadell and engineer Steve Ng gave a presentation to Jobs and other Apple bigwigs. ”I had made [a model] out of Styrofoam, put fishing weights in it, and had graphic panels on it,” Fadell says. ”Steve [Jobs] picked it up, said ‘Hmmm, feels about right.”’ The team had just seven months to design, build, and test the device in order for it to be out for the holidays.