The late ’90s were a weird time in the technology space. Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple as CEO, and the company was struggling to release a hit new software product to pair with the Mac. Jobs hedged his bets on iMovie, a suite of film-editing tools that he hoped would tickle the creative fancies of customers who owned camcorders.
But it was a sales dud. Mostly because the process of uploading a file from your camcorder was still incredibly clunky.
Steve’s team at Apple, however, felt there was an opportunity in the digital music space with the rise of Napster and other free file-sharing services, to build something legitimate, legal, and most of all intuitive. Although Jobs was a huge fan of music—mostly the Beatles and Bob Dylan—he felt that Apple was too late to the digital music party to have any sort of impact. It’s a strategy that in the following decades Apple would employ again and again: It doesn’t need to be first in the market necessarily. But it needs to be the best.
It took some convincing, according to Becoming Steve Jobs, the new biography by Fast Company executive editor Rick Tetzeli and Brent Schlender, but eventually Jobs changed his mind. While Apple had a tendency to build most of its products in-house, Jobs felt that Apple needed its own jukebox app. Enter SoundJam, a 40-dollar app built by former Apple engineers.
SoundJam was also of interest to Steve because at its heart was a sophisticated database program that would allow music to be catalogued by more than a dozen attributes. It was a favorite of so-called power users who had large libraries of thousands of music tracks to file. It was simple to navigate and operate, and it could import music files directly from audio CDs and compress them in a variety of formats into smaller chunks of digital data.
Apple ended up buying SoundJam in March 2000 with a laundry list of “unusual terms” attached:
[T]he authors of SoundJam would come back to work for Apple, but their software distributor could continue selling the existing SoundJam product until Apple had reengineered it into iTunes. The other catch was that the whole transaction be kept secret for two years. There would be no public indication that anything had changed at SoundJam, the distributor and the SoundJam programmers would continue to make money, and Apple could keep its designs on building a jukebox application under wraps. Secrecy was key.
Less than a year later, on January 9, 2001, Apple finally revealed iTunes at MacWorld. Steve Jobs’s favorite part about it? The “psychedelic ‘visualizer’ feature that generated trippy, colorful, abstract moving full-screen images derived from whatever music was playing.”