Panic Blog

October 23rd, 2021

If you can believe it, the iPod is 20 years old, today.

Now, when we look back, we can pretty clearly see that the iPod was the genesis of a totally different kind of Apple — an Apple willing to enter new markets and make the best version of that new thing. Sure, Apple had made other things before (QuickTake! PowerCD!) but they never really felt committed to those things. And there was lots of portable MP3 playing competition (like the titular Nomad in “less space than a Nomad“), but the iPod was one of the first times Apple showed up and did what we now think of as their standard move — they made The Apple Version®. It was personal, well-designed, innovative, meaningful, the sum of which was more than specs and checklists. We (I? The industry?) needed that. I have fond memories of Dave (who now works on Playdate) reverse-engineering the iPod database storage format so that you could use Audion to load songs onto it. I remember how plain fun it was to use — that click wheel, the original fidget toy! It was cool that I could use it as a tiny portable hard drive. The iPod was really good.

To celebrate, I want to show you something you’ve never seen before.

Now, there are a lot of mysteries in the Panic Archives (it’s a closet) but by far one of the most mysterious is what you’re seeing for the first time today: an original early iPod prototype.

We don’t know much about where it came from. But we’ve been waiting 20 years to share it with you.

As you can see, it’s… quite large! We’ve always assumed that this mighty shell was designed to fit the large breadboards or circuit boards that were used during the earliest days of iPod development, until everything was eventually sized down to actual iPod-size. (It also has the Jobsian side-benefit of keeping the engineers in the dark about what the final device will look like.) I can’t get enough of those chunky, clunky, clicky black buttons wired up for navigation.

What’s the inside look like?

As you can see, it’s… quite small! And a lot of wasted space!

Clearly, this revision of the prototype was very close to the internals of the finished iPod. In fact, the date there — September 3rd, 2001 — tells us this one was made barely two months before it was introduced.

That little thing sticking out of the right side is a JTAG, which allowed for easier on-device debugging.

It has always been my deepest dream to smoothly unzip a backpack on a flight, theatrically pull out this incredible beast, plug in some headphones, and use it as my actual “portable” music player. Imagine the looks.

There it is. If you ask me, it’s always interesting to see where things came from before they got there. And it’s also quite rare, in Apple’s case.

So, happy birthday, iPod. Thanks for everything.

PS: One of my favorite Apple/iPod easter eggs was added in the 5th generation “video iPod”. At the bottom of the Legal screen, long before any emoji was baked into Unicode, there was a single solitary unimpressed little unicode snowman, intended for weather. This guy, right here: ☃. We could only find one (!) photo of this on the internet:

A (literally) small easter egg, but I loved this so much. It felt like classic Apple — engineers and designers just having a little fun before things got so big and serious — a tiny reminder that actual humans made the polished things I enjoyed. So of course, Apple removed it from a later firmware revision when the press noticed. Times were changing. (In solidarity, I registered https://☃.net.) But mostly I’m telling you this story so that now you’ll understand why there’s a single unimpressed snowman at the bottom of Playdate’s regulatory screen.