Articles by Peter Hossli, a curious reporter who always finds a good story

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Mr iPod

He developed the invention of the century and launched a new lifestyle with the MP3-Music Player iPod from Apple. Tony Fadell, secret star of the computer industry, is not permitted to tell anyone. Now he does.

By Peter Hossli (text) and Adrian Müller (fotos)

tony_fadellTony Fadell, 38, is not to be envied. He changed the world – but no one is allowed to know. It was Spring 2001, when Fadell, an engineer by occupation, was skiing on the slopes in Vail Colorado and his mobile rang, “Hello, Tony” said a voice, “we have a job for you.”

It was the voice of the hardware director for Apple. Just six months later, in time for Christmas, the US computer manufacturer presented the iPod, a beautifully designed, compact MP3-Music Player. At that time, a thousand songs could be stored on this hard disc. The public was presented this gadget as a small world wonder, and naturally Steve Jobs handled this, the charismatic and very vain CEO and co-founder of Apple. At that time Fadell was already kept out of the picture – even though he had developed the device from the very beginning, as head of a team of 35 designers and engineers. Ironically Apple designer Jonathan Ive has got more publicity than Fadell for the iPod look and style.

Fadell had accomplished a job in the entertainment electronics sector that only very few engineers previously had done. As of April 2007, the iPod had sold over 100 million units worldwide. It not only revived Apple, but also the weakening music industry, analysts unanimously verify. And they also say that the device leads ultimately to what the prophets of the digital revolution always pronounced, that the future in lucrative sales is in digital goods. In the meantime, sociologists and psychologists are analysing the social impact of the musical mites. Social scientists have already defined a new species; the so-called iPodder, any contemporary with a slightly disconnected countenance who wanders through the world and life in a music bubble.

Much has been said about this high-tech tool. Only one person hadn’t spoken till now, Fadell. The engineer accomplished what only very few technichians have managed to do: he launched an entire lifestyle with one invention, like Sony did in the Seventies with the Walkman or later Nicolas Hayek with the Swatch. But Fadell, the father of the iPod could not have his fatherhood acknowledged, he’s never spoken to the press, there have only been Internet rumours circulating about him.

For weeks he ignored our interview request, but then suddenly he agreed to a telephone conversation. Fadell wants however to be telephoned at home, not in his office in Cupertino, California, Apple’s Headquarters. No one should know that he’s speaking to the press. “Hello, Tony here”, he says in a friendly voice. It is early in the morning and Fadell is still in his house in Portola Valley, a cute little town not far from Palo Alto; houses cost here at least a million dollars.

“I’ll let you know the rules for this interview now”, Fadell begins. “It’s about me, me as a person. Not about the history of the iPod. Understand?” And “You need to know: certain questions I won’t answer.

Can you tell us how you began at Apple?

“No, that’s not possible. I can only say what is written on my website: I work in the iPod department at Apple with the title of Vice-President.”

Mr Fadell, the US magazine Newsweek described a few weeks ago an episode where you received a call from Apple while you were on a ski vacation. Is this the truth?

“I can’t speak about this.”

“Can you at least tell us why you can’t speak about this?”

“Only selected speakers discuss our products. That’s a rule at Apple. The products are in the foreground, not the people.”

At Apple primarily one person speaks: CEO Steve Jobs, 51, the Messiah of the corporation. Many think he’s brilliant – but certainly he is extraordinarily egocentric. Jobs is afraid that the competition could steal his best engineers. That’s why no one can know about Fadell. His fears are not unfounded. 23 years ago when Jobs revolutionised the Personal Computer with the first Macintosh, Rolling Stone magazine interviewed the Mac-Maker. Shortly thereafter his engineers switched to the competition – they paid higher salaries. This exodus is one of the reasons that Jobs’ plan to control the PC market with Macs didn’t work out. Instead the market shares for his computer dropped three percent worldwide. The same shouldn’t happen with iPod, especially since the latest figures show Apple holds almost 80 percent of the market for digital music players.

That’s why Fadell is actually not allowed to tell his story or speak about his career, which is really a classic American success story. Born in Detroit, he moved with his family throughout the country, attended eleven schools and as an eight-year old held his first job selling eggs. Fadell came to Silicon Valley when he was twenty where he founded six companies; three he sold with a sizeable profit and three he closed down. Between businesses number four and five he was enlisted by the Dutch electronics giant Philips, because no one could build ingenious portable gadgets like Fadell. He calls himself a “studied engineer” and “self-proclaimed designer”. His passion is designing portable devices. “Limited space forces more creative solutions for complex problems.”

What kinds of problems did he have to solve at iPod? Fadell answers generally, but he answers. “You have to imagine the entire product in advance before you build it.” By reasonably priced consumer goods like the iPod, the hardware-design, software-design and the mechanical design must all collude. So that: “the system doesn’t cost much, uses little energy and can fit in a hand.” One thing is for certain: “You have to make compromises. To figure out the right ones is a real art.” His background helped him to weigh against each other the power in the small processor, the range of software, as well as the life span of the battery. Before he built “computer chips, developed programs and designed complete products.” He’s talking like the father of the iPod. So, is he? Is he? “I can’t answer this question, sorry.”

For Philips he designed two pocket computers, the Nino and the Velo. For Sony he created the MagicLink, a type of electronic all-purpose device that stored addresses, appointments, sent faxes, and displayed news and stock market figures. The device won design and technology prizes and flopped – “because the company didn’t market it properly.” A portable gadget only has a chance to sell when its meaning and purpose are illuminated in catchy advertising messages. “Apple succeeds at this, Philips doesn’t.” At Philips only the numbers count. Apple though, “wants to manufacture the best products, the business comes second.”

Fadell calls the iPod “the product that is dearest to him.” The iPod accomplishes a single simple task perfectly, that’s why it’s so successful – it plays audio files whether they are music or audio books. He thinks it is “stupendous” when he meets somebody on the street with white earplugs dangling from their ears. Every day he reads e-mails from happy iPod owners: some even describe how the device helped them get a date. And if the competition copies the design, “I feel satisfaction.” Oh, so he feels the happiness of the creator? “Sorry, no comment.” So, he detects the happiness of the creator after all? “Sorry, no comment.”

Fadell never invents something from nothing. His products are the further development of existing concepts. “I’m not a scientist that’s constantly walking into new territory without a designer and engineer that can implement it.” His ingenuity is inherited from his grandfather, an “engineer from the old school”, says Fadell, “one that builds everything himself.” For days his grandfather tinkered around with young Tony and taught him to imagine technical problems visually before he tackled them.

When Tony was ten years old, Apple, at that time a still new computer firm, had just launched the Apple II, a particularly well thought out personal computer. Tony wanted it, but had no money. His grandfather made him a deal: “You work during your summer vacation and I’ll make up the difference you’re still missing.” The boy hauled golf clubs around the green as a caddy and in the fall he purchased his first computer.

Five years later his grandfather’s investment had paid off. Fadell, the teenager, had developed an ultra-fast processor for the Apple II; Apple bought the patent.

Tony Fadell closes our telephone conversation with a request: “Please do not write anything about the history of the iPod.“ Of course – he hardly said anything about it. “I don’t want to lose my job.” Then Fadell says he is flying with his wife over the weekend from California to New York for the wedding of an iPod-developer. “There will be a lot of iPodder’s there.” Will you let us photograph you in New York? “Under one condition, it has to be a paparazzi photo, not a posed portrait.”

Finally, a meeting two days later. Fadell shows up in Manhattan wearing jeans and a designer shirt; whose bright white reminds one of the iPod. A silver pair of sunglasses hide his eyes, his hair is blond and scanty, his bare feet in leather sandals. On his full round face is perhaps, a somewhat silly, but sincere smile. Fadell dresses himself casually and expensively. His style doesn’t quite suit the boyishly friendly, strong, large man, who demonstrates his new mobile phone long and avidly.

As well as his iPod. During a walk with the photographer through the New York Meatpacking District he pulls the newest model out of his trouser pocket. He’s obviously proud. There are 10,000 songs stored on this. “Have you ever seen it?” he wants to know jokingly. “Eclectic” is how he describes the music on his iPod, he says, widely uncommon. Fadell owns 3500 CDs and 120 gigabyte digital song files, around 4,000 hours of music. Detroit rock is his favourite. He likes the device because he doesn’t have to drag CDs around, but still has a considerable part of his collection with him. “On my iPod, I download what I can find.” And on the iPods of others he constantly discovers new music. “Before I thought nothing was cooler than going to a friend’s house and comparing their CDs with mine”, says Fadell. “Now I can do it with one hand, anytime. My friends always have their music with them.”

What types of portable gadgets will we be showered with in five or ten years? He doesn’t want to be an oracle. Only this much: “Historically, companies with portable music players have achieved high profits.” Fadell is of course thinking about the Walkman from Sony.

Tony Fadell has lived in Silicon Valley for seventeen years, the valley of technology and monetary dreams. The internet boom in the nineties produced more multi-millionaires between San Francisco and San Jose than anywhere else. Then the stock market crashed and the valley emptied. “Many came for the fast money”, he says. Now engineers make the decisions again. The money-greedy talkers have disappeared. “I love the work, not the money. The money comes automatically.”

Nine years ago, the science magazine Fast Company predicted that the then 29-year old Fadell would be at 35, “one of the leaders in Silicon Valley”. Now 38, Fadell smiles about the quotation. “I am the leader of a large Apple team. Apple is leading technologically. I’m looking forward to still developing many new great products.” And the product that should make him world-famous? Maybe, he says, there will be a book one day about the history of the iPod. Tony Fadell will arguably be the one to write it.

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3 Comments

  1. Congrats! very cool!
    He sounds like a nice guy and made a great product!

    Zack
  2. Great interview. Very interesting. Thank you.

    It is regretted that Fadell leave Apple. May be now you can write something interesting about history of iPod? :)

    Oleg
  3. Both Tony Fadell and Nicholas Hayek are of lebanese origin

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