An Email History of the 2001 iPod Launch
Fifteen years ago, Apple introduced its music player. I had bigger things to worry about.
From: Lynn Fox[SMTP:LFOX@APPLE.COM] Sent: Friday, October 19, 2001 6:45:30 PM To: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: UpdateHi Steven,Since we haven’t hooked up via telephone, thought I’d send an email to let you know the current status.It is very possible that we will be able to have the product hand delivered to you on Tuesday. The only caveat is that we’ll need to hand deliver it to you, so we’ll need to coordinate schedules…. I will be able to confirm this on Monday morning, but wanted to keep you up to date. We’ll also check into setting up a telephone interview with Steve for Tuesday. If we did that, would around 4:15 p.m. work for you?Thanks,Lynn
The fifteenth anniversary of the iPod crept up on me. I should have seen it coming, because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about the device. Given that the iPod was instrumental in the trajectory of Apple from a veteran computer company struggling for relevance to the premier manufacturer of digital products, I feel attention must be paid to the milestone. October 23, 2001 was a signal day in the history of tech. Fifteen years later, it’s worth a look back. After all, I was there…sort of.
So I dove into my dusty emails. In those pre-Gmail times, I would cull a number of emails from the usual torrent for archiving, keeping them in monthly inboxes. Clicking on the folder of October 2001 emails was opening a box full of rose petals and wasps. The month was insane. I was living in New York City, the parent of a fifth grader. I was working for Newsweek, which at the time was still one of the world’s major news sources. Everything was colored by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, whether it was story assignments or preparations for Halloween. And then there was anthrax, which was possibly — not for sure, but kinda maybe — sent to Newsweek via postal mail.
From: XXXXX@Newsweek.com Sent: Monday, October 22, 2001 3:44:48 PM To: New_York_Staff@newsweekmag.com; Subject: Additional mail pick-up infoYou can pick up your mail from 10:00–12:00 noon and from 2:00–4:00 p.m. only (the room will be locked at all other times). For ease in finding your mail, boxes have been labeled with employee names and grouped according to the way your mail is delivered. Latex gloves, masks and letter openers have been provided for your use. Each room has been set up with a garbage can for garbage and one for suspicious mail. Mail placed in the suspicious mail bin will not be returned to you. Again your cooperation is greatly appreciated.
As I rediscovered in my emails, my reporting dealt a lot with cyberattacks, and I was interviewing people such as former NSA chief Mike McConnell. I also did a Q&A with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who elbowed his way into the national conversation by volunteering to provide software for a secure ID card system. (Me: “What motivated you to do this?” Ellison: “Oh, I guess the fact that I’m an American citizen or a civilized person living on the Planet Earth.”)
But it wasn’t all 9/11. The tech world was beginning to crawl out of a hole of inaction. On October 25, Microsoft was holding its launch event for its major new OS upgrade, Windows XP, in New York. It was intended to signal that the city was coming back to life, albeit a life with more metal detectors.
From: Windows XP Launch[SMTP:WINDOWSXPLAUNCH@EVENTS.CRGNET.COM] Sent: Tuesday, October 16, 2001 9:30:13 PM Subject: Microsoft Windows XP Launch SecurityThe Windows XP launch is coming up, and we’re excited that you’re going to be joining us. This is an important launch for everyone who uses PC technology — and we’re going to have a fittingly great kick-off for it in New York. We’ve had quite a few questions about security, and want to confirm that we are taking every appropriate action to make this an extraordinarily well-secured event. . . To help ensure everyone’s safety, we are asking a few things of you:· Bring two forms of identification.
· Come early to register.
· Do not bring bags, backpacks, cameras or bottles to the event.The Windows XP Launch Team
And now there was news of a new Apple event in California, coming in the form of a mailed invitation. The only clue to its nature was a line at the bottom of the card. “Hint: It’s not a Mac,” it read.
I would not be going. To be honest, I wasn’t ready to get on a plane. But of course I would not ignore what Steve Jobs was offering. As the email at the top of this piece indicates, Apple understood that I would not be able to go to the Cupertino campus to the event, but the company would supply me with a device on the same day that Steve Jobs introduced it, and I would be able to spend a few minutes on the phone with Jobs.
On that Monday, I took my son to the doctor and attended the final game of the American League Championship Series, where the Yankees clobbered the Seattle Mariners (much to the dismay of my companions, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser and the junior senator from Washington, Maria Cantwell).
Tuesday was the launch day. (I later learned that Apple had been ready to hold the event a week earlier but held it off until hardware VP Jon Rubinstein’s return from his honeymoon.) I missed the actual launch event, at which Steve Jobs pulled an iPod out of his jeans pocket; these were days before live-streaming was a thing. But within hours of the event, Apple couriers, who had been going up and down the Atlantic seaboard delivering boxes to tech writers, dropped off my iPod.
(Getty Images)The box was striking, with a kinetic photo of Jimi Hendrix. When you opened it, the stark white device — which I’d describe as a thermostat control in a David Hockney painting — sat like a gem in a jewel box. Apple had also provided reviewers with a stack of CDs (presumably to dispel the charge that illegally downloaded music would populate the iPod’s 5-gigabyte hard drive). There were offerings from the Beatles, Sarah McLachlan, Moby, Nirvana, Ella Fitzgerald, Alanis Morissette, Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Bob Dylan. The Bob Dylan was the 1966 live concert from London with the definitive “Like a Rolling Stone.” Though the set was multi-genre, one suspected that Jobs’s musical tastes were the determining factor in the selection.
I had barely been able to process this when Jobs called for our interview. To my back was a spectacular view of Central Park in fall foliage. Ahead of me was a shelf with a small television where I had seen the second tower collapse just a few weeks ago. Now I was talking to a man about a gadget.
Jobs had always been a self starter, jumping into whatever he wanted to tell you. Today, he sounded breathless. He probably had done a couple of these since his event. Even though I had just opened the device and seen a press release, he began racing through the specs.
So why a music player? I wanted to know.
“We love music. But there’s no market leader. No one’s got it right. iPod will be a landmark product.”
How long have you been working on this? “We started to understand the opportunity to do a device in the second half of last year,” he said. “We started it earlier this year. We have the vision, and figured out how to turn it into reality. It’s a breakthrough device, a giant leap.”
Though it seems silly now, one of the big deals about the iPod was its ability to automatically update itself when plugged into the computer with the matching iTunes library. He mentioned that Apple did an auto sync with the Newton.
Who is going to buy this? “There are 7.5 million Macs with Firewire,” Jobs said. “The initial target market are those users. I’ll be glad to tell you how many we sell but I don’t do predictions.”
Are you going to do a Windows version? “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Finally, I asked him about the idea of introducing a device designed for fun in a time when the nation was still in mourning. He lowered his voice a register. “It’s a tough time, but life goes on,” he said. “It must go on. I think we’re feeling good about coming out with this at a difficult time. Hopefully it will bring a little bit of joy to people.”
The next day I played with my new toy for a while, ripping CDs into my library and discovering how cool it was to shuffle the whole collection.(I would eventually become obsessed with the shuffle function.) I put the device in my pocket when I headed out to a dinner Microsoft was hosting at the Marriott Marquis for “you and a very select group of your peers” (according to the email) to discuss the Windows launch with Bill Gates and other executives.
I was pleased to see myself placed beside Bill Gates, who can actually be a fun, if sometimes challenging, dinner companion. I waited until the dishes for the main course were cleared and most of the others at our table were clearing out before I sprang my surprise on him. “Have you seen this?” I asked, pulling the iPod out of my jacket pocket. I’ve previously written about what happened next:
Gates went into a zone that recalls those science fiction films where a space alien, confronted with a novel object, creates some sort of force tunnel between him and the object, allowing him to suck directly into his brain all possible information about it. Gates’ fingers, racing at Nascar speed, played over the scroll wheel and pushed every button combination, while his eyes stared fixedly at the screen. I could almost hear the giant sucking sound. Finally, after he had absorbed every nuance of the device, he handed it back to me.
“It looks like a great product,” he said.
Then he paused for a second. Something didn’t compute.
“It’s only for Macintosh?” he asked.
Such was my trifecta 15 years ago: Jobs, Gates, and an early iPod. I certainly didn’t think that almost three years later I would write a cover story about how the iPod had become a cultural phenomenon, and in five years would publish a book about it. And I certainly had not a clue that the successor to the iPod would be a mobile phone that would become the prosthetic that shifted the population of the entire world to information cyborgs.
After my column was done on the 26th, the iPod emails tailed off. But out of curiosity, I kept reading the October 2001 files, deep into the rabbit hole of a past life frozen in the virtual amber of digital archives. That’s how I came across an email I had totally forgotten, dated the last day of October. Steve Jobs had asked me to email him my reaction to the iPod. I’d told him that my Newsweek column accurately reported my enthusiasm and that I was enjoying the iPod personally, especially the ability to combine many songs into a single collection. I did have a couple of suggestions, asking for a way to create playlists on the fly (Apple did implement this on the third generation iPod in 2003) and complaining that because iPods synced only to one iTunes library, there was no way to get new music into the collection if you were traveling without your computer. It was this last comment that elicited the following note:
From: Steve Jobs[SMTP:SJOBS@XXXXX.COM] Sent: Wednesday, October 31, 2001 1:25:30 AM To: Levy, Steven Subject: ipod responseSteven,We may be able to accommodate your request.As you know, iPod will not let you “upload” music from your iPod back onto a Mac in any event. And Auto-Sync will allow you to auto-sync with only one iTunes music library at a time.But you can turn off Auto-Sync and go into Manual mode, where you can manually manipulate iPod’s playlists (from within iTunes) and also download music onto iPod from more than one iTunes music library (ie from more than one Mac).To do this you must turn off Auto-Sync and do it manually, and you can never upload any music from iPod to your Mac.Steve
Many of the memories and anecdotes about Jobs involve larger-than-life escapades of genius or bad behavior. But this was everyday Steve: banging out a fairly arcane answer to a user question that showed his deep familiarity with the product and the level of thought that went into it. (As well as a cautionary reiteration about the sensitive subject of music piracy, possibly included because he knew he was writing to a reporter.) Maybe for that reason, unearthing this exchange hit me hard, in the same way that Facebook does when it spontaneously flashes a photo of a relative whose passing you weren’t thinking about. Celebrating the anniversary of the iPod also means mourning once again the man who introduced it to us.
Fifteen years later, I now work in the building that replaced the Twin Towers. And I still shuffle my music, iPod style.