Thanks to Apple Computer's penchant for CIA-like secrecy, there are several myths concerning the birth of the iPod.
One of these myths is that the iPod has a father -- one man who conceived and nurtured the iconic device. Steve Jobs, of course, is one candidate; but engineer Tony Fadell has also been named the father of the iPod, as has Jon Rubinstein, the former head of Apple's hardware division. While they all played key roles in the iPod's development, the iPod was truly a team effort.
Here's the story:
In 2000, Steve Jobs' candy-colored iMac was leading the charge for Apple's comeback, but to further spur sales, the company started asking, "What can we do to make more people buy Macintoshes?"
Music lovers were trading tunes like crazy on Napster. They were attaching speakers to their computers and ripping CDs. The rush to digital was especially marked in dorm rooms -- a big source of iMac sales -- but Apple had no jukebox software for managing digital music.
To catch up with this revolution, Apple licensed the SoundJam MP music player from a small company and hired its hotshot programmer, Jeff Robbin. Under the direction of Jobs, Robbin spent several months retooling SoundJam into iTunes (mostly making it simpler). Jobs introduced it at the Macworld Expo in January 2001.
While Robbin was working on iTunes, Jobs and Co. started looking for gadget opportunities. They found that digital cameras and camcorders were pretty well designed and sold well, but music players were a different matter.
"The products stank," Greg Joswiak, Apple's vice president of iPod product marketing, told Newsweek.
Digital music players were either big and clunky or small and useless. Most were based on fairly small memory chips, either 32 or 64 MB, which stored only a few dozen songs -- not much better than a cheap portable CD player.
But a couple of the players were based on a new 2.5-inch hard drive from Fujitsu. The most popular was the Nomad Jukebox from Singapore-based Creative. About the size of a portable CD player but twice as heavy, the Nomad Jukebox showed the promise of storing thousands of songs on a (smallish) device. But it had some horrible flaws: It used Universal Serial Bus to transfer songs from the computer, which was painfully slow. The interface was an engineer special (unbelievably awful) and it often sucked batteries dry in just 45 minutes.
Here was Apple's opportunity.
"I don't know whose idea it was to do a music player, but Steve jumped on it pretty quick and he asked me to look into it," said Jon Rubinstein, the veteran Apple engineer who's been responsible for most of the company's hardware in the last 10 years.
Now retired, Rubinstein joined Apple in 1997. He'd previously worked at NeXT, where he'd been Steve Jobs' hardware guy. While at Apple, Rubinstein oversaw a string of groundbreaking machines, from the first Bondi-blue iMac to water-cooled workstations -- and, of course, the iPod. When Apple split into separate iPod and Macintosh divisions in 2004, Rubinstein was put in charge of the iPod side -- a testament to how important both he and the iPod were to Apple.
Apple's team knew it could solve most of the problems plagued by the Nomad. Its FireWire connector could quickly transfer songs from the computer to player -- an entire CD in a few seconds; a huge library of MP3s in minutes. And thanks to the rapidly growing cell phone industry, new batteries and displays were constantly coming to market.
In February 2001, during the Macworld show in Tokyo, Rubinstein made a visit to Toshiba, Apple's supplier of hard drives, where executives showed him a tiny drive the company had just developed. The drive was 1.8 inches in diameter -- considerably smaller than the 2.5-inch Fujitsu drive used in competing players -- but Toshiba didn't have any idea what it might be used for.
"They said they didn't know what to do with it. Maybe put it in a small notebook," Rubinstein recalled. "I went back to Steve and I said, 'I know how to do this. I've got all the parts.' He said, 'Go for it.'"
"Jon's very good at seeing a technology and very quickly assessing how good it is," Joswiak told Cornell Engineering Magazine. "The iPod's a great example of Jon seeing a piece of technology's potential: that very, very small form-factor hard drive."