Wired On The iPod

Wired online is carrying an article, “Straight Dope on the IPod’s Birth” (Link), that’s worth reading if you’re an industrial designer. Here are some quotes that I thought were of interest:

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.

And no one should assume Apple was the only one to see it.

In my opinion, it’s not so remarkable that Apple saw the opportunity – what’s amazing to me is that so few of the manufacturer’s saw it. What blinded a place like Creative to the obvious?

Given the device’s parts, the iPod’s final shape was obvious. All the pieces sandwiched naturally together into a thin box about the size of a pack of cards.

“Sometimes things are really clear from the materials they are made from, and this was one of those times,” said Rubinstein. “It was obvious how it was going to look when it was put together.”

Nonetheless, Apple’s design group, headed by Jonathan Ive, Apple’s vice president of industrial design, made prototype after prototype.

This actually sounds pretty bad. Imagine one guy saying the shape is obvious yet ID was making prototype after prototype. Lots of companies would balk at the cost of that effort.

The idea for the scroll wheel was suggested by Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, who in an early meeting said quite definitively, “The wheel is the right user interface for this product.”

Schiller also suggested that menus should scroll faster the longer the wheel is turned, a stroke of genius that distinguishes the iPod from the agony of competing players. Schiller’s scroll wheel didn’t come from the blue, however; scroll wheels are pretty common in electronics, from scrolling mice to Palm thumb wheels. Bang & Olufsen BeoCom phones have an iPod-like dial for navigating lists of phone contacts and calls. Back in 1983, the Hewlett Packard 9836 workstation had a keyboard with a similar wheel for scrolling text.

It’s amazing how many iPod/Apple apologists don’t know this and give credit to Apple – and especially the industrial design group – for inventing this interface.

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” Jobs told the Times. “That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Unfortunately, there’s a big gap in the story afaic. The iPod was, iirc, originally released without DRM. Yet they already had the beginnings of iTunes in January of 2001, according to this story. And there are stories that Fadell had been shopping a system – part gadget and part internet music store – around without success prior to being hired by Apple. Something is missing here.

Consequently, after reading this story and noting the missing pieces, I get the sense that Wired didn’t get the whole story and that possibly it was, in fact, Fadell who saw the big picture, and that Apple marketing perhaps saw an opportunity to break into the market without any DRM restrictions (which was what was slowing Sony as they searched for ways to protect their content businesses), and then phase in their iTunes hook up – in accordance with Fadell’s plan – but after they’d gotten the market primed; after the first sips of kool aid had been taken and the whole “cool factor” had taken hold of the first-adopters and spread to the Apple faithful.

The more I learn about Apple the more I learn about Apple.