The iPod’s Big Apple

Tony Fadell, the team leader in creating the portable media player, has brought music to the ears of millions. The Grosse Pointe Park native chats with us about his success.

iPod Big AppleWhen Tony Fadell was getting kicked out of math class at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park (for “not taking direction from the teacher,” he recalls), probably none of his classmates, and certainly not his teacher, could glimpse what would be in this kid’s future.
Who could even see a world in which this rebel would be the father of a device so ubiquitous, it would be the coveted gift in every Christmas stocking, a palm-size totem of the rise of one industry and the downfall of a few others?

Let a thousand white earbuds bloom. Tony Fadell grew up to give the world the iPod.
Perhaps we overstate the case. To be precisely accurate, Fadell, now a Silicon Valley (California) resident and senior vice president at Apple Inc., was part of the team that designed the iPod and, later, the iPhone. But he was the team leader, and among Mac cultists, considered the key to the device’s development. Today, the Michigan schools that nurtured him — besides Pierce, he graduated from Grosse Pointe South High School and the University of Michigan — are crowded with his wildly successful, revolutionary idea for a tiny digital music player with a big hard drive, a long-lasting, rechargeable battery, working in sync with an online music store for easy purchase and download. The early advertising touted “1,000 songs in your pocket.”

“He had the idea of the whole ecology,” says Elliot Soloway, the computer-engineering professor at U-M who was his mentor. “The device, the Web site, the way it all works together.”

Soloway isn’t surprised by his student’s success. “He was different from day one. He had tremendous energy and enthusiasm, and was never daunted by any challenge. He was always willing to take big risks.”

When we talked to Fadell by telephone, he was getting ready to take a big vacation — two weeks in Fiji. It was his first in a year, not long after Apple unveiled its 15th generation of iPods, a cheaper iPhone, and the iPod touch, something of a hybrid between the two.

What’s it like working for Steve Jobs?
He is an incredibly smart guy, really driven, and wants to make the world’s best products. If you have the same passions, it’s really easy to want to end up at the same goal together. [At Apple], it comes from the top down. We set out to make the best product we possibly can. It’s not a company run by bean counters.

My thing is design, the entire product from soup to nuts. Steve has a lot of clear opinions, particularly about thoughtful design. Keep it simple — that’s always been a tenet of Apple and of Steve. He has a love of Porsches, Steinway pianos, BMW motorcycles. He tells his people to keep products like these in mind when they’re working [at Apple].

Growing up in Grosse Pointe, were you always interested in technology?
My first computer class was in sixth grade, in 1980. [We used] bubble cards, No. 2 pencils, and did Basic programming on paper terminals. I got my first computer right thereafter. I worked as a caddie at the Country Club of Detroit to pay for it.

What did you buy, and what did it cost?
It was an Apple II, and I spent $2,200 for it at the Computerland store on Mack Avenue. This was before the Mac, so it was all text-based, not even in color. I went into business with a classmate, Quality Computers in Grosse Pointe Park. We wrote software for Apple IIs in business.

And then you were at the University of Michigan.
I started two businesses when I was there, and through that I was flying back and forth to California. After I graduated, I went to work at General Magic, which was a start-up Apple launched. We work-ed on a project called Magic Cap, personal communicators.

Sort of an early PDA?
That was the idea. From there, I worked with the people who created the Macintosh. I really got my Ph.D. from them.

So you were always thinking of small devices?
Yes. The iPod was the first product that put all your music in your pocket. The idea was out there before the product came out, but we innovated on the software, and made it easy to use. We made really tough tradeoffs. The price of the device was more expensive than anything else, but we wanted long battery life and a lot of room. The first model in 2001 cost $399 for 5 gigs, and it was a critical success. But when we got iTunes going, and made it work with PCs, then we really started to be a business success, too. It created the halo effect (in which the iPods sell the computers). Our growth rate [of Mac OS computers] is three times that of PCs. People think the iPod is cool, and they wonder what else we can do.

Is the iPhone considered a success, too?
It’s a tremendous success. It’s really made the big cell phone guys sit up. The carriers who are coming to us now.

What’s your analog life like?
I have a wife and child. I enjoy road biking. I run, play different sports. I’m interested in green products.

How often do you get back to the old-economy Midwest?
My parents are still in Detroit and I have family in Toledo, so I’m back at least once or twice a year. I’m still with U-M, and speak to students. I’m on the national advisory board on curriculum.

I hear a rumor the next generation of iPhones will have GPS.
[Silence.] We love to talk about the products we have in stores now.