A personal computer is an evolved design. Starting with a basic workstation (the merger of typewriter keyboard and clever television), and developing into a laptop. Whatever shape or size it is, whatever can be plugged in, whatever software can be run on the workstation or laptop, it always remain open, flexible and evolving.
In personal computing, the customer can choose an operating system, and choose a host of devices and software programs to run on a workstation or laptop.
The only exception is the Apple ‘iMac’ personal computer. In general these devices are independently designed, rather than evolved, and only special things can be plugged in, and they only run special software. There is very little choice.
However, by 2000, Apple’s sales of ‘iMac’ personal computers was entirely on the strength of it’s styling alone; it was considered an expensive, luxury item for the middle classes — especially in the domestic market where the open-workstation was considered too ugly.
This market has its limits, and as open-laptops were becoming cheaper and a real alternative to open-workstations, time would be running out unless Apple could develop.
Steve Jobs’s first task was to figure out ways to allow people to run popular software (such as IE and Outlook) on ‘iMacs’ — this would then offer choice to the consumer (an open-workstation or a Mac).
His next task was to find a way to cash-in on the growth of Internet and increasing use of high speed broadband — especially the downloading of Music on ‘Napster’.
Apple was quick to realise that as soon as ‘Napster’ is shut down by the courts for illegal downloads, there would be a ready-made market for downloads and a gap — a gap that could be filled by cheap legal downloads. So they looked around, found and licensed the ‘SoundJam MP music player’ from a small company — and hired its main programmer, Jeff Robbin.
Steve Jobs and Jeff Robbin streamlined and relaunched ‘SoundJam’ as ‘iTunes’ in January 2001.
‘iTunes’ was designed for the ‘iMac’ — but this was a limiting factor. Sure, ‘iTunes’ might sell a few more ‘iMacs’, but if the future was going to be legal downloads, the only way to compete with open-workstations and open-laptops would be to find a brand new device altogether — a gadget of the global impact of the Sony Walkman, but it had to be a digital device.
Toshiba supplied Apple Macs with their hard drives, so when they had developed a new tiny hard drive (just 1.8 inches diameter), they naturally asked Apple’s hardware chief if he had a project that could use it. This was just one month after the ‘iTunes’ launch, and Rubinstein immediately recognised that it was perfect for the new music player. Steve Jobs was excited and wanted the first version of the device in the shops by Autumn — before the Christmas season — using whatever was to hand to do it.
Being February 2001, this did not leave much time, and as Rubinstein was busy with developing the new Macs, they quickly hired handheld gadget consultant Tony Fadell to head up a team of engineers and designers. the device was designed around the new small hard drive from Toshiba, but otherwise the basic hardware blueprint was bought from Silicon Valley startup PortalPlayer.
Slow data transfer was solved by using Firewire, and size was solved with the Toshiba drive. However, size was also a function of batteries, and one of the biggest problems was battery life; if the drive was kept spinning while playing songs, it quickly drained the batteries. So it seemed that either the device would not run for long or it would have to be bigger to accommodate more batteries. However CD Walkman manufacturers used an architecture for skip protection that provided the solution; memory chips draw much less power than the spinning drive, so the device loaded several songs into a memory buffer, allowing the drive to be put to sleep until it’s called on to load more songs. The first device had a 32MB buffer, meaning battery times stretched from 2 to 10 hours, and kept the device small and lightweight.
Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of marketing, insisted on the scroll wheel and also suggested that menus should scroll faster the longer the wheel is turned, a stroke of genius and distinguishing feature. A cell telephone operating system made by Pixo was developed into the user interface by Tim Wasko — who had previously been responsible for the interface in Apple’s ‘QuickTime’ player.
To speed up development, the team was kept small, and depended upon many mock-ups and prototypes to refine the design bit by bit under the management of Tony Fadell and direction of Steve Jobs. The team’s involvement with the rest of the company was managed by Rubinstein, and included Jonathan Ive’s design department. Steve Jobs insisted that the ‘iPod’ work seamlessly with ‘iTunes’, and that many functions should be automated, especially transferring songs. High quality and simplicity were essential.
The ‘iPod’ name was registered the previous year for an intended public Internet cubicle. The name was taken for the music player as it does not describe the device and so can still be used no matter what evolutionary changes occur.
On 23 October 2001, the ‘iPod’ was launched. It did indeed catch on with ‘iTunes’ — the two have changed the market for pop music consumption forever, the charts have changed, and manufacturers clamour to compete with the MP3 market.
New generations of ‘iPod’ have since been developed and are yet being designed, but the design standard has been set; an ‘iPod’ — despite being fairly radically redesigned (see the changes between the pictures on this page), is still and nevertheless recognisable as an ‘iPod’ — even down to the white earphones.
Because of its impact and it’s design styling, the ‘iPod’ is already a design classic — a design icon. It will remain what it is — stubbornly so — and as the various technologies of portable TVs, digital video players, digital radio and ‘podcasts’ merge with cell telephones and digital cameras and GPS devices, one day we will be able to look back at the ‘iPod’ and still recognise it for being essentially an ‘iPod’.