So many successful tech products are mentioned”iconicnowadays that the honorific has been seriously devalued. In the case of Apple’s iPod, however, it fits perfectly. And when you picture a classic iPod, you probably imagine several things, each iconic in their own way.
There’s the sleek front – white plastic in its most familiar form – and stainless steel back. The scroll wheel that made it practical to scroll through hundreds or even thousands of songs. The small display that initially only shows monochromatic text Chicagoa font that dates back to Apple’s original Mac.
For Tony Fadell, however, memories of iPods are just as much about their insides. Fadell is one of the makers of the iPhonethe co-founder and former CEO of Nest, a busy investor, and – starting this month – a book writer. But he is probably most often described as the “father of the ipod†
Therefore, looking at a photo of the interior of a particular iPod model reminds him of the design challenges it presented. “You go, ‘Oh, I remember we had to move this for this reason, we had to move that, or we had sound problems,'” he says. “When you see those things, it just brings you back.”
The Pictures that waver Fadell’s mind through time were made by Lumafield, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup that uses computed tomography (CT) scanning technology to look inside an object, collect data about what’s inside, and then reconstruct it as a 3D digital image. Along with iPods, the company has scanned other, ahem, iconic items such as: Lego mini figures† Nintendo Game Boys† Polaroid camerasand Heinz ketchup bottles†
Lumafield started sharing images on his Scan of the month site last November, long before the company left stealth mode in april† Showing off the interior of well-known products is simply a fun, very viral sideline. More importantly, the startup aims to democratize the use of CT scanning for quality control purposes in product development and manufacturing – areas where it has always had huge potential, but in many cases has been unaffordable.
When Fadell headed Apple’s iPod group, “we never had an X-ray machine,” he laments.
“This technology has been around for a long time, but typically these systems cost a million dollars,” explains Eduardo Torrealba, co-founder and CEO of Lumafield. “We’ve done some pretty crazy engineering to bring costs down to $36,000 a year.” Among the early adopters of the company’s Neptune CT scanner and Voyager software: L’Oreal† Sauconyand Trek Bike†
Fadell’s interest in Lumafield is hardly an exercise in iPod nostalgia: he’s an investor in the company through his company, Future Form† “Once I Saw” [the scanner], I said, ‘How quickly can I write a check?’” he says. “Because visualizing and going into detail about things made of atoms is ultimately very difficult, especially if you have to disassemble and reassemble them every time.”
He adds: “Another reason you need Lumafield is because we do it 3D stacking chips-dies on top dies on top dies. We have to go deep and it’s only going to get more complex.”
The fact that many gadgets are now water resistant complicates matters even more: “Once you break them, you ruin the seals,” he says. “You can’t put them back together – it’s a one-time kind of design. And being able to look like that [inside] that and inspecting, that is a superpower.”
1,000 songs on a small vulnerable hard drive
When Fadell headed Apple’s iPod group, “we never had an X-ray machine,” he laments. He certainly could have used one, since Apple’s MP3 players were full of ambitious, sometimes risky engineering feats. (Apple has finally come up with a CT scanner to help design the iPhone.)
When the original iPod was announced on October 23, 2001, its defining proposition compared to existing MP3 players was summed up in the soon-to-be-famous tagline: “1,000 songs in your pocket† That selling point — a bit baffling at the time — was made possible by the small 5 GB hard drive the iPod used for storage rather than a flash memory chip that can only hold one or two albums.
The same consumers who were careful with their laptops were used to existing portable music players, such as the Sony Discman in a bag or rattle them in a car. Apple wouldn’t teach them otherwise with an iPod. According to Fadell, Toshiba – the creator of the disc – thought this was a recipe for disaster. “If you have rotating media and you’re going to drop it, you don’t know what it’s going to do,” he says. “Toshiba was like, ‘You’re crazy – you’re never going to make a portable music player with this, the disc is going to fail.'”
Apple went ahead with its plans and changed the way people listened to music. But the company knew that the size and vulnerability of hard drives were drawbacks. From the beginning, it looked forward to the day when high-capacity flash storage would be affordable enough to build into an iPod. “We were always doing the competitive stuff and saying, ‘Oh, Flash is growing up,’” Fadell says.
The first flash-based iPod was in 2005 iPod Shuffle, which was barely recognizable as a spin-off of the original iPod: It was the size of a pack of chewing gum, had no screen, and could only play music in shuffle mode. The $99 entry-level model had room for only 120 numbers.
Eight months later, however, Apple replaced the hard drive-equipped iPod Mini with the flash-based one iPad Nano† Flash memory was still so pricey that the $199 version contained 512 numbers, with a 1,000-number model available for $249. But the big news was that the very capable Nano was small, and thinner than a No. 2 pencil — something Apple could never have done if it had a disc in it. It made for one of Steve Jobs’ most genuinely surprising keynotes.
When Fadell looks back at the Nano, the first technical challenge he raises is battery life. The device’s slim dimensions required “a much smaller battery than the large, full-size battery found on the classic battery.” [iPod] or even on the Mini,” he says. The iPod team managed to squeeze enough life out of the Nano’s nano battery to provide up to 14 hours of music playback, the same claim Apple made for the entry-level full-sized iPod available at the time.
But once the player was in the hands of consumers, an expected problem arose. Users tended to stash their tall, skinny iPad Nanos in their back pockets and then sit on them. If the Nano bends, it can damage the printed circuit boards inside. To mess things up, pressing the click wheel sometimes applied enough pressure to temporarily get the board working again.
“We got all those weird, periodic errors,” Fadell recalls. “If we could have looked in with a machine like the Lumafield machine, we could have diagnosed it much faster.”
Beyond the iPod
The first Nano may have been the pinnacle of the iPod line as a carpet for Apple’s imagination and technical chops. And by the time it was released, work on the iPhone was in full swing. Apple’s phone is said to be packed with technologies not found in iPods: a large multi-touch touchscreen, a cellular modem, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cameras, and more.
Still, Fadell, who oversaw the iPhone’s hardware, says all the miniaturized electronics expertise the company gained with iPods applied directly to the iPhone project. After all, until the iPod came on the market, Apple’s smallest computing devices were laptops—those were… behemoth by 2022 standards.
“When we got there, Apple didn’t understand” 0402 resistors and capacitorslike, really little things,” Fadell says.
Even before the iPhone was a reality, Apple knew that an MP3 player with flash storage was not the future of music. Internally, the company has been talking all along about a concept it called “the heavenly jukebox”: music stored in the cloud and streamed to a pocket-sized gadget, as Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music would eventually do. “We knew the next big thing after flash was: all your music, not 1,000 songs or 10,000 songs,” Fadell says.
if all your music in your pocket became reality, iPods faded into their original form. In 2014, Apple discontinued the iPod Classicthe last direct descendant of the full 2001 model. The final iterations of the Nano and Shuffle met the same fate three years later. And earlier this month, the company announced it would end sales of the iPod Touch — more of a phoneless iPhone than a music player, but still the last product called iPod.
Although the iPod is now officially gone, it is hardly forgotten. Lumafield CEO Torrealba says the startup takes inspiration from the speed with which Fadell and his team brought the original model to market more than 20 years ago. Now that Lumafield has deconstructed iPods with its Neptune scanner, it plans to continue using its technology to celebrate other classic technology.
“There are a lot of devices that people are really interested in,” Torrealba says. “It’s something that we as a company want to be able to do forever with Scan of the Month to highlight that truly amazing engineering that’s in these hidden details.”
As for Fadell, he refuses to think about the iPod in the past tense. “The Apple II brand no longer exists, but it does – it’s a cornerstone of the company,” he says. “The iPod is a cornerstone of the company. The iPhone would never have existed without the iPod. The iPod never goes away, whether there’s a product out there called that name or not.” The technology that made it all possible is a big reason why.