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Inventing the iPod: How the 'really big risk' Paid off for Apple

While joining Apple, the world's most valuable company may seem obvious today, 2001 was different. That's when CEO Steve Jobs asked -- not asked -- Tony Fadell to join the company to create a groundbreaking device. But the man who would later invent the iPod was at first hesitant about the idea.
"I thought, wow, wow," Fadell told me in a Zoom interview on Oct. 23 to mark the 20th anniversary of the iPod."You had to be a complete lunatic to work at Apple back then."
In early 2001, while Fadell was developing his MP3 player, Apple hired him as a consultant to design different prototypes for digital music players to complement apple's newly released iTunes software. He made an impression on Jobs."We're building it, and now you're going to build it with us," Fadell recalled Jobs saying.
Fadell eventually agreed, of course, and led the team that built one of the most important products in Apple's history -- one that is still available (albeit in a very different form) on apple's website. The iPod turned a company with only a small share of sales and personal computers into a consumer electronics giant. It also revolutionized the digital music industry, decimating the CD and turning Apple's iconic white MP3 player and ubiquitous white headphones into a status symbol.
Most importantly, the early work on the iPod paved the way for Apple's next breakthrough product, the iPhone.The iPhone has transformed almost every aspect of our lives and the way we interact with mobile devices, turning Apple (AAPL) into the world's most valuable company. Apple is currently valued at $2.42 trillion.
Fadell followed up the success of the iPod with Nest Labs, a maker of smart home products (later acquired by Google). He told me about the "madness" of the iPod's early days, why he thought it would succeed, and how it had stood the test of time. This is his story.
Apple declined to add anything to the story.

It's just a consulting job
Wearing a loose-fitting olive polo shirt and AirPods Max headphones, Fadell, 52, speaks vivaciously during our video chat. Before joining Apple, he worked at Philips Electronics and General Magic, a spin-off of Apple.
In early 2001, Apple executive Jon Rubinstein was given the task of developing a music player. Fadell was already working on his start-up, Fuse Systems, to develop a mainstream MP3 player. It's an emerging market, with a dozen players from companies as diverse as Creative Labs and RCA. The problem: Only 500,000 of the devices, which cost a few hundred dollars, were sold in 2000, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.The fuse itself has had plenty of rejections. Still, Mr. Fadell saw his consulting work at Apple as an opportunity to keep his project alive
"I'm going in for a consultation," he said."I'll make some money and keep my business going."
He spent about seven weeks researching different options for digital music players, transferred from his own company to study them. Finally, he made three models out of styrofoam and gave them the right weight using his grandfather's fishing weights.
He gave them to Steve Jobs at the end of March 2001. Stan Ng, an Apple veteran, had worked with Fadell to prepare a stack of documents for the event -- that was before the slide show era -- which prepared Fadell for Jobs and his fiery temper."Those stories were so ingrained in my mind, so deeply embedded in my brain, that I was nervous," Fadell said.
Jobs immediately picked up the stack of papers, flipped through a few pages, and quickly threw them away."This is what I want to do," Fadell recalled Jobs saying, forcing a forcible interruption that forced them to get down to business.
When presenting the models, Fadell followed Ng's instructions, showing the worst model first, then the second model, and finally his favorite model.
Jobs jumped at the chance.
"Steve picked it up and said, 'We're building it, and now you're going to join us and build it,'" Fadell said.'AND I said,' Whoa, whoa, '"
It is easy to forget that Apple's entry into this market is not foolproof. The company's sales (from Mac computers) are declining, and Apple reported a loss of $195 million in the previous quarter.
Fadell, who has spent the past decade working on devices with "limited success," isn't sure he'll experience disappointment again when he builds an MP3 player that no one buys.
Not surprising, but Jobs did it.

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