Apple has discontinued the iPod classic. Here’s a story from November 2013 on the device’s unexpected design inspiration.–Eds
For a company as forward thinking as Apple is, much of its success is arguably owed to the age-old concept of the wheel. More specifically, the click wheel, the novel navigation tool embedded in its original iPod music player.
Apple has sold hundreds of millions of iPods to date. The revolutionary product disrupted the music business and ushered in an era of mobile consumer products. It helped iTunes balloon into a massive asset, pushed Apple toward experiential design, and served as the foundation for early iPhone prototypes. But back in the early aughts, as Fast Company learned from speaking to scores of insiders for our recent oral history of the company’s design philosophy, Apple wasn’t initially sure how it would design the iPod’s user interface. That is, until Apple found inspiration from the Danish company Bang & Olufsen.
“One of our big issues was how we would do the user interface,” says one source intimately involved in the project. Apple was hoping to deliver a device that could carry 1,000 songs. The problem was figuring out an innovative way to help users browse through their expansive music libraries. “Everyone had these goofy buttons, and we hated buttons,” the source adds. “So how do we do it [differently]?”
It’s commonly said that the iPod was inspired by Braun’s T3 pocket radio. The white, Deiter Rams-designed device looks remarkably similar to the iPod, especially with its scrolling wheel and cigarette-pack-size form factor.
While it’s possible Apple took visual cues from Braun’s design, the inspiration for the wheel itself came from a different place. “It was a Bang & Olufsen phone,” explains the source. “B&O did a phone, like a home phone, and they used a wheel to scroll. [Apple marketing SVP] Phil [Schiller] had seen it, and said, ‘Well, we should do that.'”
Around that time, Bang & Olufsen had brought the technology to its BeoCom 6000, a wireless telephone designed by Henrik Sørig Thomsen that used “an intuitive navigation wheel to give speedy access to practical features like a phone book.” B&O had been using wheel technology for decades, recognizing, according to the company’s website, that “all the primary functions” can be “carried out using the wheel and the keys that surround it.” Even 1974’s BM 6000 used a wheel to control volume and tuning.
But most significantly, the BeoCom 6000 phone used sound to echo the wheel’s turns. “We wanted it to have sound … because we wanted to give it a tactile feeling,” recalls Thomsen, who says Bang & Olufsen at first experimented with various materials in order to produce the hardware’s audible complement. “But some of the technical people came up with the idea to make the sound come from the loud speaker.”
When Schiller showed the Apple team the design, the reaction was unanimous. “It was instantaneous: This solves the problem,” says the Apple source. “Everyone went, ‘Wow!'”
A team of Fast Company reporters spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. Read the part 3 of the oral history here, which covers the creation of the iPod. An extended version of this oral history is available from Byliner. Purchase it here.