iPod 20th anniversary tale reveals the true genius of Steve Jobs

iPod launch Steve Jobs
(Image credit: Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago today, Apple released the first-generation iPod. While it seems like a home run with the benefit of hindsight, the MP3 player was actually an enormous gamble for a company that was, in 2001, about as far from being a trillion-dollar powerhouse as it’s possible to be.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the iPod, CNET spoke to Tony Fadell, the “father of iPod” to talk about his memories of the time, and it provides an interesting look into the late Apple founder Steve Jobs’ decisiveness.

Fadell, at the time, was running his startup Fuse Systems, which had the goal of creating an MP3 player. But creating a market from nothing is difficult for any company — and doubly so for a startup — and in the year 2000, total sales of MP3 players was around 500,000 units: the definition of a niche tech product.

With that in mind, when Fadell was invited to visit Apple with prototype digital music players, he saw this as a chance to keep his startup afloat, but wasn’t necessarily optimistic. Nonetheless, he built three prototypes out of styrofoam and weighed them down with his grandfather’s fishing weights to give each one a realistic heft. 

Ahead of the meeting, Fadell says he worked with former Apple employee Stan Ng to work on a stack of papers to present — it was 2001, so it wasn’t the slideshow era — and was also warned of Jobs’ “reputation for an explosive temper.”

A master negotiator

Fadell presented the three prototypes in reverse order of preference, and that psychological trick — recommended by Ng — worked. “Steve picked it up and he's like, 'we're building this and you're now going to join us to build it,' and I was like 'whoa whoa,'" Fadell said. 

In 2021, this would sound like a no brainer. But you have to remember that in 2001, Apple was a company that had just posted a loss of $195 million. And the last thing Fadell wanted was for his baby to be abandoned when it failed to instantly make waves.

In his negotiations with Jobs, he managed to get a commitment to digital music players which was unusual for an unproven product. The Apple CEO pledged an enormous marketing budget and to bring in resources from the core Mac business to help the iPod fly. Even when the first two generations didn’t do much, Jobs kept his promise. "He held up his side of the business, and the rest is history," Fadell said.

That wasn’t the last challenge Fadell faced, as the rest of the excellent feature explains, but it was a major hurdle, and a huge step in Apple’s journey to profitability, pointing the way to the iPhone and everything that followed.

What next for the iPod? 

Twenty years later, and the iPod is no longer the jewel in Apple’s crown, but it is still around — albeit in a state that a younger Fadell would no longer recognize, with the iconic click wheel replaced by the familiar iPhone touchscreen. The iPod touch is hidden away on Apple’s site, essentially a dated iPhone without cellular connectivity.

Could it come back? One leaker posited that Apple would refresh the iPod Touch with an iPhone 12 style look this year to mark the 20th anniversary, but that seems unlikely. 

But there’s still a degree of nostalgia for the iPod Classic, click wheel and all. If you want to imagine what such a device would look like in 2021, take a look at these renders and dream

But don’t get too carried away, because even the artist in question concedes such a device isn’t feasible nowadays. In 2021, it’s just too niche. But this story goes to show just how confident Steve Jobs was in his vision and how good he was at recruiting the best possible talent to make it a reality.    

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Alan Martin

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.