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Columns and Opinions
History of iTunes and iPod
Wednesday, May 9th, 2007 at 4:00 PM - by Thomas Hormby
iPod and iTunes helped catapult Apples brand beyond easy to use computers known for their multimedia software and a keen aesthetic sense. Almost single-handedly, iTunes and the iPod revitalized the Apple brand amongst ordinary consumers, not just their Macintosh users and computer nerds in general. Unsurprisingly, considering Apples inadvertent successes and occasional spectacular failures, the project was not the result of a bloated research and development department, but rather the inspiration of a few key people, most of them outside of Apple.
Not unlike iMovie, which was originally developed at Macromedia, iTunes had its origins at an outside developer. In fact, it was actually created by two engineers acting on their own. The Rio had been the first mass market MP3 player to be released in the US, and had survived a legal challenge from the RIAA, who claimed that it would be a vehicle for music piracy The original Rio, and most first generation MP3 players, were of limited utility. Their storage capacity typically topped out at 64 MB, but 32 MB was more common, sound quality was not great and music transfer over Parallel or USB 1.1 was painfully slow.
Nonetheless, the concept of MP3 players excited many consumers and were not commercial failures. One excited consumer was former Copland developer Bill Kincaid (where he no doubt learned the lesson of bloated teams of developers and nebulous deadlines that couldnt be kept). Kincaid had heard about the Rio on an NPR news broadcast during his commute and was inspired to create Rio software for the Mac.
Kincaid recruited his friend, Jeffrey Robbin (also a former Copland developer) to help him code, and SoundStep was born. Development moved along and the two developers morale was no doubt improved by Diamonds next generation Rios inclusion of USB, eliminating the need for a USB-Parallel hardware interface. Bill worked on the MP3 encoder, a task that required a fair bit of education on audio and math, and Jeff worked on the MP3 decoder.
MP3 software is very expensive to develop since the standard is owned and jealously protected by Thomson Electronics, so it would be prohibitively expensive for the pair to release the software independently. Jeffrey had already worked on the immensely popular Conflict Catcher software that allowed users to create different sets of Extensions and then test to make sure they werent incompatible with each other. Conflict Catcher was marketed and supported by the venerable Cassady & Greene. The company was a Macintosh mainstay, and had developed and sold shareware for almost twenty years (their first big Macintosh hit was the immensely popular Crystal Quest, which has recently been ported to the XBox 360).
SoundJam MP & Audion
Cassady and Greene, unsurprisingly, was willing to distribute Jeffreys MP3 encoder. The resulting product was named SoundJam MP and occupied a comfortable niche in the Mac market. There were already several other MP3 jukeboxes available for the Mac, but, at the time of SoundJams first release, none of them supported the Rio nor did they sport an intuitive (and very Mac-like) interface. In fact, the biggest name in MP3 jukeboxes at the time of SoundJams debut was MacAMP, whos crowning feature was the ability to use WinAMP themes without modification. Also, presumably because of the steep MP3-license fees, MacAMP did not encode MP3 files from CDs. Another notable SoundJam feature was its visualizations modules, a feature either not present in other jukeboxes or very primitive.
SoundJam was released on August 23, 1999, and was an immediate hit. To the chagrin of some users, the software used the same brushed metal interface as QuickTime 4, but with a few tweaks. Most notably, a proper volume control that wasnt prone to spiking violently (the QT4 knob was actually a slider that was represented on a dial, users were to move the knob from side to side because moving it in a circle would cause spikes). Despite the quasi-controversial default theme, the software received positive reviews from the Mac press and was even selected as the official Mac client for Rios.
A few weeks after SoundJam was released, Audion, from Panic, was released, and the two packages began a two year struggle for dominance. Though Audion did not have the blessing of Rio, it garnered a comparable market share and was always in the top two Mac MP3 jukeboxes. Audion, according to its developers, was notable for its better audio quality (which they could not explain) and its better skinnability. Audion supported alpha channel, a feature they had to write from scratch since Mac OS did not include transparency until Mac OS X.
Eventually, on September 23, 1999, Panic received an odd e-mail from the manager of Apples QuickTime group, Charles Wiltgen. The QuickTime group had developed its own MP3 decoder for QuickTime 4, which was sort of a competitor of both Audion and SoundJam). Mr. Wiltgen wanted to talk about Audion and Apple, but the head developer, Cabel Sasser, had already initiated a relationship with AOL that promised to get Audion onto the Macs of AOL customers (AOL was less of a laughing stock back then). On the instructions of AOL executives, Mr. Sasser never pursued the deal with Apple.
In June of 2000, Apple tried to contact Cabel again. Apple was in the midst of readying Mac OS X for release, and had even developed its own stripped down MP3 jukebox as a demonstration of OS Xs UI more than anything else. Apple was actively promoting Audion for Mac OS X in its promotional materials and on its Web site. It appeared that Audion would be the "blessed" MP3 jukebox for Mac OS X, but it was not to be.
Jeffrey Robbin became the main developer for SoundJam, and in a Cassady & Greene tradition, still owned his program and could pull it off the market or sell it as he liked. He continued to release updates to SoundJam, eventually adding the ability to use Audion themes amongst many other features. However, after a few point releases after SoundJam 2.0, updates stopped flowing and retailers werent able to get more stock. Apparently, Apple, unable to cut a deal with Audion, had gone to SoundJam instead, and hired Jeffrey Robbins as head developer for a skunkworks project to refashion SoundJam into an Apple application (which mostly meant stripping features out and simplifying the user interface).
After a few months of rumors, iTunes was debuted at the January 9, 2001 Macworld keynote, and was very well received. Unlike both SoundJam and Audion, which both supported themes, plugins and many obscure features (alpha channel, for example), that necessitated a complex user interface to control it all, iTunes was very simple. Most of the screen was dedicated to a browser (with the trademark columns from NeXTStep) that made finding a single song, album or artist very easy. Along the top there were three buttons and a volume slider for playback control and sound volume. The entire interface was austere and easy to approach.
Needless to say, iTunes blew SoundJam (which was discontinued shortly before iTunes was released) and Audion away. Panic continued to sell Audion as a sort of iTunes pro, where it continued to be popular in Japan, but sales slowly wound down and the product was discontinued in 2002 (it became a free download for both Classic and Mac OS X). Jeffrey Robbin was promoted to manage the entire iTunes development team, and would later play a key role in the hardware component in Apples new music strategy.
According to Apple VP, Greg Joswiak, Apples plans for an MP3 player began shortly after iTunes was released to the public. iTunes included support for burning CDs and for popular MP3 players, including the Rio. Unfortunately, the MP3 players did not offer a very Mac-like user interface. "The products stank" (Newsweek), Joswiak said. They usually only had a four direction pad and play controls, making browsing through the limited memory very difficult. Add to that the indignity of the paltry capacity (so low that MP3 CD players became popular because CD-Rs had twenty times the capacity as the standard 32 MB players), and Apple sensed an opening it could take advantage of.
Jon Rubinstein (vice president of Apple hardware and a former NeXT hardware executive), on the orders of Steve Jobs, assembled a small team of hardware and software engineers to create an MP3 player that was well integrated with iTunes, had a decent storage capacity and was very easy to use. Jobs wanted the product ready in months, not years, so outside help would be necessary.
The most notable outside developer was engineer Tony Fadell. Tony Fadell had began his career with Apple-scion turned Newton competitor, General Magic, which manufactured Personal Communicators before they were cool. He later moved to the marketing department at Philips, where he helped promote the first generation of Handheld PCs from Microsoft, which also competed with the Newton. Fadell had been enamored by the "Napster Revolution," and created a business plan for an MP3 player and music service that would combat music piracy and earn healthy returns at the same time.
Fadells plan was notable for its use of third party technology instead of developing hardware and software in-house. Instead of launching an expensive development project, Fadell would license MP3 player hardware from PortalPlayer (a company which was helping IBM develop a Bluetooth MP3 player, amongst others) and focus on differentiating the user interface from its competitors rather than its core technology. Fadell shopped the idea at Philips, Microsoft and Real, who all turned him down. On a whim (it was thought that Apple had left consumer electronics forever after the Pippin and Newton failures), Fadell presented his idea to Apple, and was warmly received.
Tony Fadell and Outsiders
Fadells plan for a music service and MP3 player nicely jived with Rubinsteins mission of releasing an MP3 player on the cheap. Especially since Apple would be able to control the entire user experience (a hallmark of the Macintosh line). Fadell was hired shortly after Rubinstein was given his charter from Jobs and began work with a team of thirty engineers.
The members of the small group immediately grasped the impact the iPod would have on Apple and the computer industry in general. During his first discussion with PortalPlayer after he was hired by Apple, he told the gathered executives that Apples "going to be a music business, not a computer business." (Wired) PortalPlayer had already developed the chipset that would be used on the iPod, and even had a mockup player created. It was just as bad as the Rios peers, except for its one redeeming feature. Unlike the flash players with low capacity, or the Creative Nomad Jukebox II, which used a 2.5" hard drive (the same size used in notebook computers), the mockup used a 5 GB 1.5" drive from Toshiba, which had not even been released yet.
Because of the small-sized hard drive, the player was approximately the same size as the flash players (and transistor radios, Walkmans and the like). Apples job would be developing a user interface--meaning the hardware and the software. The directional pad and play controls were a thoroughly un-Apple interface convention. The decision to go with the scroll wheel was attributed to Jon Rubinstein, who (according to Leander Kahney) might have been inspired by a line UNIX workstations sold by HP in the early eighties or by high-end Bang and Olufsen telephones.
The play controls encircled the scroll wheel (eliminating the need for a directional pad) and allowed users to manipulate their music without lifting a finger. A classic Apple touch was added to augment the experience. A small piezo-transducer was placed beneath the scroll wheel to give tactile feedback for menu items and songs. Jonathon Ives team of industrial designers created a lucite white enclosure, taking a cue from the iBook, which had been released a year before (and actually featured the Rio in some of its advertisements). In order to avoid industrial espionage, Ive only let people outside the iPod and design teams see the iPod in a shoebox-sized enclosure to prevent any spies from seeing the innovative form factor before it was released. To add to the confusion, the scrollwheel and play controls were moved around the box with each revision.
Apple generated a near-unprecedented flurry of speculation in the press with its invitation to a Apple Special Event for a product thats "not Mac." On October 23, 2001, Steve Jobs (in De Anza Community Colleges nearby auditorium) debuted the iPod and a new version of iTunes that supported seamless synching of playlists to and from the iPod to mixed reactions in the press. The device used FireWire, which made file transfers very fast, but FireWire was only included on high-end consumer and professional Macs. Add to that, iPods Macintosh-only software and its prospects for a serious impact on the industry seemed slim.
Part two of Tonys business plan was an online music store. Apple was not the first to create such a store, but it was the first not to fail spectacularly. The most notable pre-Apple music store was Pressplay, which was a joint venture between major record labels. The software would eventually evolve into the subscription Napster service (which this author uses exclusively and recommends whole-heartedly), but in its early forms, it was a dog. The software allowed 20 downloads a month to be transferred to CD and only 3 songs from every artist. A user could stream as many as 300 streams a month, with no limitations on artists. The service cost $10 a month and was not very popular. Ultimately, Pressplays investors bought the Napster brand and released Napster 2.0, which was much more liberal.
The iTunes Music Store, widely copied (even by the original backers of Pressplay in the form of Napster Light), had fewer restrictions. Each track cost US$.99 and an album $9.99, less than most physical albums. Tracks or albums could be burned as many as three times. iTunes Music Store has not supplanted ripping music from CDs or piracy as the preferred method of loading music onto iPods, but it has proven to be lucrative for Apple, and better than nothing for the record industry.
These predictions were largely unmerited after several changes that Apple made to the line (and the business model). With Rev. B, Apple licensed iPod-synching software to MusicMatch (later acquired by Yahoo) and added USB 2 for high speed synching with PCs. Apple augmented the lack of content (ripping music from CDs and piracy were the two primary ways of finding music for the iPod) by releasing the iTunes Music Store, which quickly supplanted Pressplay to become the most popular music store.
After MusicMatch developed its own music store, Apple ported the entire iTunes package to Windows, Music Store and all. Since its release in 2001, and its porting to Windows in 2002, iPod quickly captured 76% of the hardware MP3 player market, and double digit market share in the MP3 player market (one dominated by cheap generic players). The businesses that passed on SoundJam and Tony Fadell became Apples biggest competitors: AOL, Microsoft, Real and Philips. Philips and AOL are both bit players in the market, and Microsoft is struggling through its Zune and PlayForSure initiatives. Jeffrey Robbins and Tony Fadell, two men who started out as independent contractors, were both made VPs at Apple and are involved in corporate strategy.
All images and screenshots are official corporate images (except for the screenshot of the iTunes and Real visualization components). Sources are linked in text and direct quotes are acknowledged parenthetically. Leander Kahneys article on Wired and Cabels article on Panics Web site were my primary source.
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