Who Really Invented the iPod? (Hint: Not Steve Jobs)

The story ends at Apple, but it begins in 1970s England

When a product becomes as popular and world-changing as the iPod, people want to know "who invented the iPod?"

If you guessed the answer is "Steve Jobs and a bunch of folks at Apple invented the iPod" you're mostly right. But the answer is also more complex and interesting than that. Like most inventions, the iPod was preceded by other, similar inventions, including one that goes back to 1970s England.

Who Invented the iPod at Apple?

Apple didn't invent the idea of a digital music player that fits in your pocket. In fact, the iPod was far from the first portable MP3 player. A number of companies sold their own MP3 players for years before the iPod debuted in October 2001, including Diamond, Creative Labs, and Sony.

There were MP3 players prior to the iPod, but none of them were big hits. This was due to price and features. For example, the 1999 Creative Labs Nomad had 32 MB of memory (Not GB! Those 32 MB were enough to hold 1 or 2 CDs at low audio quality). It cost US$429.

The digital music market was also immature. In 2001, there was no iTunes Store, no other download stores like eMusic, and Napster was still pretty new. Part of why the iPod succeeded was that it was the first product to really make the process of loading and listening to music easy and enjoyable.

When the original iPod debuted in October 2001, a team at Apple had been working on it for about a year. That team was:

  • Jon Rubinstein: Apple's senior vice president of hardware engineering. He is now on the board of directors at chipmaker Qualcomm and Amazon.
  • Jonathan Ive: He helped design the original iMac and iPod. In 2019, he retired from his role as Chief Design Officer at Apple.
  • Tony Fadell: An engineer and senior vice president of the iPod division. He founded Nest after leaving Apple. Nest was bought by Google for $3.2 billion in Jan. 2014. Fadell is often given a large share of credit for inventing the iPod.
  • Michael Dhuey: An engineer at Apple. He now works at Cisco Systems.
  • Tim Wasko: An interface designer at Apple.
  • Steve Jobs: Co-founder of Apple and the company's CEO. He oversaw the iPod project. He died in 2011.

How the iPod Got Its Name

Did you know that the person who gave the iPod its name wasn't even an Apple employee? A freelance copywriter named Vinnie Chieco suggested the name iPod because he was inspired by the line in the movie 2001, "Open the pod bay door, HAL."

Want to dive deeper into iPod history? Check out This is the Number of iPods Sold All-Time.

Other Companies That Helped Invent the iPod

Apple builds its hardware and software entirely in-house and rarely partners with outside companies. That wasn't the case during the invention of the iPod.

The iPod was based on a reference design by a company called PortalPlayer (which was later acquired by NVIDIA). PortalPlayer had created a prototype device using an embedded operating system similar to the iPod.

Apple is widely known and respected for its intuitive user interfaces, but Apple didn't completely design the first iPod interface, either. It contracted with a company called Pixo (now part of Sun Microsystems) for the foundational interface. Apple later revised and expanded on it.

But Who Really Invented the iPod?

As noted earlier, Apple was far from the first company to sell a portable digital music player. But would you believe that the basic concept for the iPod was invented in England in 1979?

A British inventor named Kane Kramer developed and patented the idea of a portable, plastic digital music player in 1979. Though he held the patent for a while, he couldn't afford to renew the worldwide patent on his idea. Because the patent had expired by the time MP3 players became a big business, he didn't make any money from his original idea when it started showing up in everyone's pocket in the 2000s.

While Kramer didn't directly benefit from his invention, Apple did acknowledge Kramer's role in inventing the iPod as part of its defense against a patent lawsuit in 2008.

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