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.

Posted at 9:00 am 16 Comments

Imagine the size of the battery you could fit in that enclosure… you could probably fit 500 Wh of batteries in there and never have to recharge it, ever!

Adams Immersive

10/23/2021 12:28 PM

Anything on a snowman becomes cool within minutes. Especially a fez.


Jeiwidheow Jxjsja

10/23/2021 12:45 PM


Tomas Kafka

10/23/2021 1:20 PM

Tim: That’s an awesome idea – how would our everyday devices look, if they had enough battery capacity for the average use over its lifetime?

For example, Apple Watch 300 mAh battery gets you a day, if you get it for 3 years, that’s 3 * 365 * 0.3 = 328 Ah.
That’s about 3 of these:

You buy it, and when it runs flat, you throw the watch out, and get a new one, like back in days where disposable cameras were a thing. But that’s actually where we live right now.

My iPod doesn’t show a snowman… it shows the Apple logo in blue at the very top, and PortalPlayer’s logo (the same logo that appears on their chip case) just underneath the Apple copyright notice. It’d be interesting to compare notes and find out when the snowman melted: my iPod is running v1.3, with a copyright date of 2001-2008.

Chad Armstrong

10/25/2021 1:04 PM

I love these Panic stories (the one about Audion is my favorite). I kind of wish I hadn’t recycled my first iPod (a 2nd gen) during my minimalism phase. But that element of fun is what I expect we’ll see from the Playdate.

Cool stuff. Guessing the oversize case may have been for 3.5″ drives during early development.

It’d be great to hear from someone in-the-know what the inspiration was behind the Unimpressed Snowman.

Paagal Swami

10/26/2021 1:51 PM

I find transistor radio chic with melba-yellow texture would have made Steve Jobs hurl

Dan Parent

10/26/2021 2:16 PM

If I had kept all the Apple hardware (and install disks [and AOL disks ?]) I had since ‘76 I’d need to have a shed in back yard. Except the G4 Cube, on the mantelpiece.

(Confidential to @Samot – I keep trying to reply to you via email but can’t because you’re using a fake address. Using a real e-mail is one of our only requirements to comment here. See our FAQ for more information on Playdate in Malaysia. Working on it!)

Marty Bishop

10/30/2021 2:31 PM

Ah, the spinny wheel on that first iPod! How I loved that thing. I heard people beef about how “Apple didn’t invent anything new”, but I felt sorry for those people. They couldn’t see what a shift had just occurred with this clever, friendly design. A couple of years later I traded it in to get a discount on the Gen 3 model, with the buttons moved to a row just under the screen. The extra storage was nice, but what I really wanted was that dock, with power and audio wires in the back. I hooked it to my stereo in 2003, and there it sits today, still occasionally pumping out playlists for me.

David Shayer

11/8/2021 12:59 PM

As an original iPod engineer, I can verify that’s a real iPod stealth prototype. I had one on my desk.
The stealth packaging is used before the real packaging is available, but also to hide the real packaging from anyone unauthorized who might accidentally get a peek.
Most new Apple hardware comes in some form of stealth packaging internally, before it ships.


12/3/2021 10:25 AM

This is an incredibly cool piece of hardware! How about the software side? Is it usable? What’s the interface like?

I would love to see some more photos!

Or even a dump of the filesystem so people smarter than me can try running it on regular iPods? :P