Making It Look Easy – The Birth of the iPod

“This feels like crap!” Steve growled at the engineer from the industrial design department. He repeatedly plugged and unplugged the headphones from the pre-production iPod and looked as if he might fling it across the room. “…these headphone jacks all have to be replaced by tomorrow” he continued.

Tomorrow was October 22, 2001, one day before the introduction of Apple’s new digital music player, known as P68, but soon to be christened ‘iPod’.

iPod P68 - Preproduction Model

I sat quietly about six seats away, wondering how the unlucky engineer would respond. I could almost see his mind racing as he thought about the big stack of new iPods sitting in the adjoining room, waiting to be handed out to the press who would be there in just over a day…how could we possibly disassemble and modify all of them in time?? and even if we could, would it really improve the situation?? and is it really as bad as Steve makes it sound?? Will anybody really care what it feels like when the headphone plug ‘clicks’ into place?? But before he had time to form any kind of lucid response, Steve sent him away with the edict: “find a way to fix it.”

The ID guy left the room and everyone’s attention turned back to the stage. “The iPod’s screen looks awful on the video projector. Why doesn’t it look like it did in the promo video?” Steve asked. The tech fidgeted with the Flexcam, trying to improve the picture. But every time they would move the iPod, the white case would ‘fool’ the auto exposure on the camera and the image of the screen would get very dark. The event manager suggested that perhaps the little Flexcam wasn’t up to the job, and they could try a more professional camera with manual exposure control. “Why didn’t you think of that before? Get it done right away!” So the techs scurry away in search of a 3-chip video camera and some way to mount it upside-down and vertical above the iPod in a way that wasn’t too ugly and that didn’t get in the way of Steve’s demo and that could all be made to work in the next two hours.

And so it went for the whole day and through the final rehearsal the next day. Everything had to be just right…no not ‘just right’, it had to be great. This was the way of Apple, and the introduction of this new device was no exception.

My Apple BadgeI was there in my capacity as product manager for iDVD, and even though he had done it many times Steve wanted to go through the iDVD demo and choose new sample movies to use. The ‘Digital Hub’ concept was still new and he took every opportunity to refine the presentation.

The magic of Apple is that this stuff is largely invisible. At the unveiling on Tuesday, none of these details had the slightest impact on the response of those in attendance; at least not taken individually. But taken together, along with the countless other little details which had been considered and worked on and improved before the world saw the product, they contributed to the Apple difference. The iPod became the world’s best portable music player not because it has a scroll wheel or because it has white headphones or because it syncs with iTunes. It’s because all the pieces of the users’ experience have been thought about and refined and prioritized to create the product. Not just by Steve Jobs, but by the many people at Apple who work on each new product.

Today, the pre-production iPod on my desk (shown above) doesn’t get much use (although it still works great); I tend to favor my Nano. But it’s very gratifying to know that the way the headphones click ‘just so’ when you plug them in, was not an accident.

21 Responses to “Making It Look Easy – The Birth of the iPod”

  1. Steve says:

    Yeah but how did the engineer solve the headphone problem?

  2. Mike Evangelist says:

    I never actually found out what they did. There was so little time before the intro event the next morning, my guess is they had to individually polish the headphone plugs so they had the right feel.

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  4. RevsUp says:


    I love this! This is going to be some very entertaining/fascinating reading. It already is.

    My only question is, how is it you can write this and not get in trouble? Non-Disclosures and all.

    After all, won’t Steve be mad?



  5. Brad says:

    Do you have any insight into why the name iPod was chosen? I’ve always wondered about that.

    Thanks. Great blog.

  6. Mike Evangelist says:

    Brad, I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of how/why that name was chosen, but it certainly turned out to be a brilliant choice. (Shows how much I know…I thought it was a strange name when I first heard it.)


  7. Will Parker says:


    You’re making a really great start! Thanks for sharing these stories with us.

    I’m sitting here waiting for my second interview callback for a job at Apple Cupertino, shaking off the nervous twitches by getting a good long soak in the headlines from MacSurfer. Your stories are a much better antidote than what’s new in shareware this week.

    I’d really appreciate it if you could describe a bit more of the nuts and bolts of the Apple design process before anything is committed to code and/or circuitry. For example, I used to work on the Mac Office team at Microsoft…

    edited by Mike

    …but I’d really like to get a handle on Apple’s own way of getting this early phase – from bright idea to first code.

  8. Mike Evangelist says:


    For me, the differences between how MS does something and how Apple does it comes down to a matter of tense; MS is past tense, Apple is future tense. MS finds out what customers want and then attempts to make it. Apple tries to make things that don’t exist yet, or that customers will want in the future, but they don’t know it yet.

  9. Magnus says:

    Thanks Mike,
    it is a great read. The “in medias res” start of this chapter is excellent, as is the ending, which makes a nice tie-in with the start.

    Being Mr grammatical-error-finder, I would suggest to remove the “and”s after the double question marks and start the next sentence with a capitalized word, e.g. “…in time?? Even if…” looks much better.

    Is this the kind of feedback you’d like? Or am I just picky (might however remind you of someone.. ;-)

    Keep up the good job!

  10. Mike Evangelist says:

    Hi Magnus,

    Yes, that’s very helpful. One of the reasons I decided to try this concept was to get ‘corrective’ feedback before I went too far down the wrong alley. I’m already thinking I should set up a some kind of special comment area for handling stylistic and structural comments, separate from general comments.

  11. John says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the insight! Very intelligent overview and puckish at the same time. I do have a question, though (surprise!). When was the last time Mr. Jobs had an intimate encounter with anyone? As much as I agree with his work ethics, I can’t help but think that the man is overdue for an unfettered romp with someone, anyone. I had a boss just like him (and learned more from her than all my previous managers rolled into one), and when she finally met someone and started getting shagged on a regular basis, her managerial directives didn’t change at all but her interactions with underlings was amazingly pleasant. She still got the 110% performance she sought, but she did it with a laugh, a joke, or a smile (and I swear she was glowing once the relationship began). That, or she used too much rouge. :) Just curious…

  12. BM5k says:

    As I read this, I sit unplugging my 30gig iPod photo’s headphones & plugging them back in…

    I’ve noticed the *feel* before… but now that you mention it…

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  14. henrywaters says:

    I too am repeatedly unplugging and plugging in my iPod headphones. Oh God, so tight. It feels so good.

  15. Mike Evangelist says:

    Careful Henry, this is a family site.

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