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In brief: Not to make anyone feel old or anything, but the iPod turned 20 over the weekend. Apple's portable MP3 player first launched on October 23, 2001. To celebrate the iPod's birthday, Playdate maker Panic posted what it says are images of "an original early iPod prototype."
Panic said it doesn't know where the prototype came from and did not elaborate on how it obtained the old device. However, iPod's inventor Tony Fadell confirmed that it was indeed an iPod prototype referred to as a P68/Dulcimer.
This is a P68/Dulcimer iPod prototype we (very quickly) made before the true form factor design was ready. Didn’t want it look like an iPod for confidentiality - the buttons placement, the size - it was mostly air inside - and the wheel worked (poorly) https://t.co/qeNMHMmVsc— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) October 23, 2021
The device is large, clunky, and appears to still be in working order, although it admittedly doesn't work all that well. But how high are your expectations for a 20-year-old pre-consumer mockup? The screen still functions, and the buttons work fine, but the scroll wheel functions "poorly." Fadell admitted that they put the prototype together "very quickly."
Indeed, the part that houses the display is marked September 3, 2001, meaning that Fadell and his team likely threw the prototype together less than two months before the final product launched.
Opening up the chassis reveals the inside is mostly empty space. In fact, the rudimentary design almost looks like the guts of the final device were jury-rigged to some big plastic buttons and a very basic circuit board used to interface all the components. Apple purposely chose the large chassis and clunky controls to hide the iPod's final design.
"Didn't want it look like an iPod for confidentiality [sic]," tweeted Fadell.
Despite the flood of seemingly endless leaks recently, Apple has a long history of shrouding its unreleased products in secrecy, even among its internal developers.
Another example of how the Cupertino company disguises its upcoming products was the Apple Watch prototype revealed last year. Brian Merchant's book, "The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone," recounts how Apple even kept its original iPhone engineers compartmentalized and in the dark about what they were designing.
As you're fondly remembering using your first iPod, imagine what it must have been like to try to pitch the product to someone using a prototype as ugly as the P68/Dulcimer. It's not something that you would imagine transforming the way people listened to music.