Hot on the heels of yesterday’s Apple event, we hop in the wayback machine to an Apple event that happened on October 23, 2001.
While yesterday’s event saw updates to pre-existing products – new iPads and new Macs – the 2001 event featured the unveiling of the iPod, a device that would end up being one of Apple’s most important products.
At around the 13-minute mark in the above video, Jobs talks about how “no one has really found the recipe yet for digital music.” That recipe turned out to be an Apple-built portable music player that worked hand-in-hand with the Apple-built iTunes software.
One of the secrets to the original iPod’s success was its diminutive five-gigabyte hard drive, which Apple pitched as capable of storing 1,000 songs. Hard drive-based MP3 players existed at the time, but many of them used 2.5-inch or larger hard drives, making the players themselves relatively big and clunky.
Here are two I own, the Pocket mStation (left) and the NeoPlayer (right), with the iPhone 4 thrown into the mix to give you a sense of size:
Neither of these old-timey music gadgets could fit in a pocket without some serious alterations. Apple’s iPod, by comparison, was made far more pocketable thanks to the inclusion of a 1.8-inch Toshiba hard drive. The story behind how Apple came to acquire these hard drives for the original iPod is interesting.
Jobs had expressed interest in building a portable music player in late 2000 and had tasked Jon Rubinstein with making it happen. The problem, however, was that Jobs wanted a player that was small and sleek like the flash-based music players of the time but that held as many songs as the hard drive-based players at the time (the flash ones would only hold between 10 and 20 songs depending upon how you compressed the music).
Rubinstein told Jobs that the components necessary to make a small music player with a lot of storage didn’t exist yet. This was in late 2000, according to the story, which is well-documented in Walter Isaacson’s book.
However in February of 2001, Rubinstein was in Japan meeting with Toshiba when the following scene played out, according to Isaacson (page 384 of Steve Jobs):
At the end of a routine meeting with Toshiba, the engineers mentioned a new product they had in the lab that would be ready by that June. It was a tiny, 1.8-inch drive (the size of a silver dollar) that would hold five gigabytes of storage (about a thousand songs), and they were not sure what to do with it. When the Toshiba engineers showed it to Rubinstein, he knew immediately what it could be used for. A thousand songs in his pocket! Perfect. But he kept a poker face. Jobs was also in Japan, giving the keynote speech at the Tokyo Macworld conference. They met that night at the Hotel Okura, where Jobs was staying. “I know how to do it now,” Rubinstein told him. “All I need is a $10 million check.” Jobs immediately authorized it. So Rubinstein started negotiating with Toshiba to have exclusive rights to every one of the disks it could make, and he began to look around for someone who could lead the development team.
“Exclusive rights to every one of the disks it could make” is the key takeaway here. Fast forward to later in the year – October 23, 2001, to be exact – and Apple would roll out a $400 pocketable MP3 player that could hold a thousand songs thanks to a hard drive no other company could use for competing products. The scroll wheel was pretty cool, too.
- Apple’s initial press release: Apple Presents iPod
- The AP’s initial writeup: Apple Unveils Digital Music Player That Holds Up to 1,000 Songs
- TIME piece from the 10th anniversary: The iPod Turns 10: How It Shaped Music History