Steve Jobs left Apple in 1985. He co-founded NeXT Computers and took Pixar public. He then returned to Apple as the interim CEO in 1997 at a salary of $1 per year. Some of the early accomplishments on his watch were started before he got there. But turning the company back around was squarely on him and his team.
By the end of 1997, Apple moved to a build-to-order manufacturing powered by an online store built on WebObjects, the NeXT application server. They killed off a number of models, simplifying the lineup of products and also killed the clone deals, ending licensing of the operating system to other vendors who were at times building sub-par products.
And they were busy. You could feel the frenetic pace. They were busy at work weaving the raw components from NeXT into an operating system that would be called Mac OS X. They announced a partnership that would see Microsoft invest $150 million into Apple to settle patent disputes but that Microsoft would get Internet Explorer bundled on the Mac and give a commitment to release Office for the Mac again. By then, Apple had $1.2 billion in cash reserves again, but armed with a streamlined company that was ready to move forward - but 1998 was a bottoming out of sorts, with Apple only doing just shy of $6 billion in revenue. To move forward, they took a little lesson from the past and released a new all-in-one computer. One that put the color back into that Apple logo. Or rather removed all the colors but Aqua blue from it.
The return of Steve Jobs invigorated many, such as Johnny Ive who is reported to have had a resignation in his back pocket when he met Jobs. Their collaboration led to a number of innovations, with a furious pace starting with the iMac. The first iMacs were shaped like gumdrops and the color of candy as well. The original Bondi blue had commercials showing all the cords in a typical PC setup and then the new iMac, “as unPC as you can get.” The iMac was supposed to be to get on the Internet. But the ensuing upgrades allowed for far more than that.
The iMac put style back into Apple and even computers. Subsequent releases came in candy colors like Lime, Strawberry, Blueberry, Grape, Tangerine, and later on Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power. The G3 chipset bled out into other more professional products like a blue and white G3 tower, which featured a slightly faster processor than the beige tower G3, but a much cooler look - and very easy to get into compared to any other machine on the market at the time. And the Clamshell laptops used the same design language. Playful, colorful, but mostly as fast as their traditional PowerBook counterparts.
But the team had their eye on a new strategy entirely. Yes, people wanted to get online - but these computers could do so much more. Apple wanted to make the Mac the Digital Hub for content. This centered around a technology that had been codeveloped from Apple, Sony, Panasonic, and others called IEEE 1394. But that was kinda’ boring so we just called it Firewire.
Begun in 1986 and originally started by Apple, Firewire had become a port that was on most digital cameras at the time. USB wasn’t fast enough to load and unload a lot of newer content like audio and video from cameras to computers. But I can clearly remember that by the year 1999 we were all living as Jobs put it in a “new emerging digital lifestyle.” This led to a number of releases from Apple. One was iMovie. Apple included it with the new iMac DV model for free. That model dumped the fan (which Jobs never liked even going back to the early days of Apple) as well as FireWire and the ability to add an AirPort card. Oh, and they released an AirPort base station in 1999 to help people get online easily. It is still one of the simplest router and wi-fi devices I’ve ever used. And was sleek with the new Graphite design language that would take Apple through for years on their professional devices.
iMovie was a single place to load all those digital videos and turn them into something else. And there was another format on the rise, MP3. Most everyone I’ve ever known at Apple love music. It’s in the DNA of the company, going back to Wozniak and Jobs and their love of musicians like Bob Dylan in the 1970s. The rise of the transistor radio and then the cassette and Walkman had opened our eyes to the democratization of what we could listen to as humans. But the MP3 format, which had been around since 1993, was on the rise. People were ripping and trading songs and Apple looked at a tool called Audion and another called SoundJam and decided that rather than Sherlock (or build that into the OS) that they would buy SoundJam in 2000. The new software, which they called iTunes, allowed users to rip and burn CDs easily. Apple then added iPhoto, iWeb, and iDVD. For photos, creating web sites, and making DVDs respectively. The digital hub was coming together.
But there was another very important part of that whole digital hub strategy. Now that we had music on our computers we needed something more portable to listen to that music on. There were MP3 players like the Diamond Rio out there, and there had been going back to the waning days of the Digital Equipment Research Lab - but they were either clunky or had poor design or just crappy and cheap. And mostly only held an album or two. I remember walking down that isle at Fry’s about once every other month waiting and hoping. But nothing good ever came.
That is, until Jobs and the Apple hardware engineering lead Job Rubinstein found Tony Fadell. He had been at General Magic, you know, the company that ushered in mobility as an industry. And he’d built Windows CE mobile devices for Philips in the Velo and Nino. But when we got him working with Jobs, Rubinstein, and Johnny Ive on the industrial design front, we got one of the most iconic devices ever made: the iPod.
And the iPod wasn’t all that different on the inside from a Newton. Blasphemy I know. It sported a pair of ARM chips and Ive harkened back to simpler times when he based the design on a transistor radio. Attention to detail and the lack thereof in the Sony Diskman propelled Apple to sell more than 400 million iPods to this day. By the time the iPod was released in 2001, Apple revenues had jumped to just shy of $8 billion but dropped back down to $5.3. But everything was about to change. And part of that was that the iPod design language was about to leak out to the rest of the products with white iBooks, white Mac Minis, and other white devices as a design language of sorts.
To sell all those iDevices, Apple embarked on a strategy that seemed crazy at the time. They opened retail stores. They hired Ron Johnson and opened two stores in 2001. They would grow to over 500 stores, and hit a billion in sales within three years. Johnson had been the VP of merchandising at Target and with the teams at Apple came up with the idea of taking payment without cash registers (after all you have an internet connected device you want to sell people) and the Genius Bar.
And generations of devices came that led people back into the stores. The G4 came along - as did faster RAM. And while Apple was updating the classic Mac operating system, they were also hard at work preparing NeXT to go across the full line of computers. They had been working the bugs out in Rhapsody and then Mac OS X Server, but the client OS, Codenamed Kodiak, went into beta in 2000 and then was released as a dual-boot option in Cheetah, in 2001. And thus began a long line of big cats, going to Puma then Jaguar in 2002, Panther in 2003, Tiger in 2005, Leopard in 2007, Snow Leopard in 2009, Lion in 2011, Mountain Lion in 2012 before moving to the new naming scheme that uses famous places in California.
Mac OS X finally provided a ground-up, modern, object-oriented operating system. They built the Aqua interface on top of it. Beautiful, modern, sleek. Even the backgrounds! The iMac would go from a gumdrop to a sleek flat panel on a metal stand, like a sunflower. Jobs and Ive are both named on the patents for this as well as many of the other inventions that came along in support of the rapid device rollouts of the day.
Jaguar, or 10.2, would turn out to be a big update. They added Address Book, iChat - now called Messages, and after nearly two decades replaced the 8-bit Happy Mac with a grey Apple logo in 2002. Yet another sign they were no longer just a computer company. Some of these needed a server and storage so Apple released the Xserve in 2002 and the Xserve RAID in 2003. The pro devices also started to transition from the grey graphite look to brushed metal, which we still use today.
Many wanted to step beyond just listening to music. There were expensive tools for creating music, like ProTools. And don’t get me wrong, you get what you pay for. It’s awesome. But democratizing the creation of media meant Apple wanted a piece of software to create digital audio - and released Garage Band in 2004. For this they again turned to an acquisition, EMagic, which had a tool called Logic Audio. I still use Logic to cut my podcasts. But with Garage Band they stripped it down to the essentials and released a tool that proved wildly popular, providing an on-ramp for many into the audio engineering space.
Not every project worked out. Apple had ups and downs in revenue and sales in the early part of the millennium. The G4 Cube was released in 2000 and while it is hailed as one of the greatest designs by industrial designers it was discontinued in 2001 due to low sales. But Steve Jobs had been hard at work on something new. Those iPods that were becoming the cash cow at Apple and changing the world, turning people into white earbud-clad zombies spinning those click wheels were about to get an easier way to put media into iTunes and so on the device.
The iTunes Store was released in 2003. Here, Jobs parlayed the success at Apple along with his own brand to twist the arms of executives from the big 5 record labels to finally allow digital music to be sold online. Each song was a dollar. Suddenly it was cheap enough that the music trading apps just couldn’t keep up. Today it seems like everyone just pays a streaming subscription but for a time, it gave a shot in the arm to music companies and gave us all this new-found expectation that we would always be able to have music that we wanted to hear on-demand.
Apple revenue was back up to $8.25 billion in 2004. But Apple was just getting started. The next seven years would see that revenue climb from to $13.9 billion in 2005, $19.3 in 2006, $24 billion in 2007, $32.4 in 2008, $42.9 in 2009, $65.2 in 2010, and a staggering $108.2 in 2011.
After working with the PowerPC chipset, Apple transitioned new computers to Intel chips in 2005 and 2006. Keep in mind that most people used desktops at the time and just wanted fast. And it was the era where the Mac was really open source friendly so having the ability to load in the best the Linux and Unix worlds had to offer for software inside projects or on servers was made all the easier. But Intel could produce chips faster and were moving faster. That Intel transition also helped with what we call the “App Gap” where applications written for Windows could be virtualized for the Mac. This helped the Mac get much more adoption in businesses.
Again, the pace was frenetic. People had been almost begging Apple to release a phone for years. The Windows Mobile devices, the Blackberry, the flip phones, even the Palm Treo. They were all crap in Jobs’ mind. Even the Rockr that had iTunes in it was crap. So Apple released the iPhone in 2007 in a now-iconic Jobs presentation. The early version didn’t have apps, but it was instantly one of the more saught-after gadgets. And in an era where people paid $100 to $200 for phones it changed the way we thought of the devices. In fact, the push notifications and app culture and always on fulfilled the General Magic dream that the Newton never could and truly moved us all into an always-on i (or Internet) culture.
The Apple TV was also released in 2007. I can still remember people talking about Apple releasing a television at the time. The same way they talk about Apple releasing a car. It wasn’t a television though, it was a small whitish box that resembled a Mac Mini - just with a different media-browsing type of Finder. Now it’s effectively an app to bootstrap the media apps on a Mac.
It had been a blistering 10 years. We didn’t even get into Pages, FaceTime, They weren’t done just yet. The iPad was released in 2010. By then, Apple revenues exceeded those of Microsoft. The return and the comeback was truly complete.
Similar technology used to build the Apple online store was also used to develop the iTunes Store and then the App Store in 2008. Here, rather than go to a site you might not trust and download an installer file with crazy levels of permissions.
One place where it’s still a work in progress to this day was iTools, released in 2000 and rebranded to .Mac or dot Mac in 2008, and now called MobileMe. Apple’s vision to sync all of our data between our myriad of devices wirelessly was a work in progress and never met the lofty goals set out. Some services, like Find My iPhone, work great. Others notsomuch. Jobs famously fired the team lead at one point. And while it’s better than it was it’s still not where it needs to be.
Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 at 56 years old. His first act at Apple changed the world, ushering in first the personal computing revolution and then the graphical interface revolution. He left an Apple that meant something. He returned to a demoralized Apple and brought digital media, portable music players, the iPhone, the iPad, the Apple TV, the iMac, the online music store, the online App Store, and so much more. The world had changed in that time, so he left, well, one more thing. You see, when they started, privacy and security wasn’t much of a thing. Keep in mind, computers didn’t have hard drives. The early days of the Internet after his return was a fairly save I or Internet world. But by the time he passed away there there were some troubling trends. The data on our phones and computers could weave together nearly every bit of our life to an outsider. Not only could this lead to identity theft but with the growing advertising networks and machine learning capabilities, the consequences of privacy breaches on Apple products could be profound as a society. He left an ethos behind to build great products but not at the expense of those who buy them. One his successor Tim Cook has maintained.
On the outside it may seem like the daunting 10 plus years of product releases has slowed. We still have the Macbook, the iMac, a tower, a mini, an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple TV. We now have HomeKit, a HomePod, new models of all those devices, Apple silicon, and some new headphones - but more importantly we’ve had to retreat a bit internally and direct some of those product development cycles to privacy, protecting users, shoring up the security model. Managing a vast portfolio of products in the largest company in the world means doing those things isn’t always altruistic. Big companies can mean big law suits when things go wrong. These will come up as we cover the history of the individual devices in greater detail.
The history of computing is full of stories of great innovators. Very few took a second act. Few, if any, had as impactful a first act as either that Steve Jobs had. It wasn’t just him in any of these. There are countless people from software developers to support representatives to product marketing gurus to the people that write the documentation. It was all of them, working with inspiring leadership and world class products that helped as much as any other organization in the history of computing, to shape the digital world we live in today.
Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1996. At the time, most people had a digital camera, like the Canon Elph that was released that year and maybe a digital video camera and probably a computer and about 16% of Americans had a cell phone at the time. Some had a voice recorder, a Diskman, some in the audio world had a four track machine. Many had CD players and maybe even a laser disk player.
But all of this was changing. Small, cheap microprocessors were leading to more and more digital products. The MP3 was starting to trickle around after being patented in the US that year. Netflix would be founded the next year, as DVDs started to spring up around the world. Ricoh, Polaroid, Sony, and most other electronics makers released digital video cameras. There were early e-readers, personal digital assistants, and even research into digital video recorders that could record your favorite shows so you could watch them when you wanted. In other words we were just waking up to a new, digital lifestyle. But the industries were fragmented.
Jobs and the team continued the work begun under Gil Amelio to reduce the number of products down from 350 to about a dozen. They made products that were pretty and functional and revitalized Apple. But there was a strategy that had been coming together in their minds and it centered around digital media and the digital lifestyle. We take this for granted today, but mostly because Apple made it ubiquitous.
Apple saw the iMac as the centerpiece for a whole new strategy. But all this new type of media and the massive files needed a fast bus to carry all those bits. That had been created back in 1986 and slowly improved on one the next few years in the form of IEEE 1394, or Firewire. Apple started it - Toshiba, Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi, and others helped bring it to device they made. Firewire could connect 63 peripherals at 100 megabits, later increased to 200 and then 400 before increasing to 3200. Plenty fast enough to transfer those videos, songs, and whatever else we wanted.
iMovie was the first of the applications that fit into the digital hub strategy. It was originally released in 1999 for the iMac DV, the first iMac to come with built-in firewire. I’d worked on Avid and SGI machines dedicated to video editing at the time but this was the first time I felt like I was actually able to edit video. It was simple, could import video straight from the camera, allow me to drag clips into a timeline and then add some rudimentary effects. Simple, clean, and with a product that looked cool. And here’s the thing, within a year Apple made it free. One catch. You needed a Mac.
This whole Digital Hub Strategy idea was coming together. Now as Steve Jobs would point out in a presentation about the Digital Hub Strategy at Macworld 2001, up to that point, personal computers had mainly been about productivity. Automating first the tasks of scientists, then with the advent of the spreadsheet and databases, moving into automating business and personal functions. A common theme in this podcast is that what drives computing is productivity, telemetry, and quality of life. The telemetry gains came with connecting humanity through the rise of the internet in the later 1990s. But these new digital devices were what was going to improve our quality of life. And for anyone that could get their hands on an iMac they were now doing so. But it still felt like a little bit of a closed ecosystem.
Apple released a tool for making DVDs in 2001 for the Mac G4, which came with a SuperDrive, or Apple’s version of an optical drive that could read and write CDs and DVDs. iDVD gave us the ability to add menus, slideshows (later easily imported as Keynote presentations when that was released in 2003), images as backgrounds, and more. Now we could take those videos we made and make DVDs that we could pop into our DVD player and watch. Families all over the world could make their vacation look a little less like a bunch of kids fighting and a lot more like bliss. And for anyone that needed more, Apple had DVD Studio Pro - which many a film studio used to make the menus for movies for years.
They knew video was going to be a thing because going back to the 90s, Jobs had tried to get Adobe to release Premiere for the iMac. But they’d turned him down, something he’d never forget. Instead, Jobs was able to sway Randy Ubillos to bring a product that a Macromedia board member had convinced him to work on called Key Grip, which they’d renamed to Final Cut. Apple acquired the source code and development team and released it as Final Cut Pro in 1999. And iMovie for the consumer and Final Cut Pro for the professional turned out to be a home run. But another piece of the puzzle was coming together at about the same time.
Jeff Robbin, Bill Kincaid, and Dave Heller built a tool called SoundJam in 1998. They had worked on the failed Copeland project to build a new OS at Apple and afterwards, Robbin made a great old tool (that we might need again with the way extensions are going) called Conflict Catcher while Kincaid worked on the drivers for a MP3 player called the Diamond Rio. He saw these cool new MP3 things and tools like Winamp, which had been released in 1997, so decided to meet back up with Robbin for a new tool, which they called SoundJam and sold for $50.
Just so happens that I’ve never met anyone at Apple that didn’t love music. Going back to Jobs and Wozniak. So of course they would want to do something in digital music. So in 2000, Apple acquired SoundJam and the team immediately got to work stripping out features that were unnecessary. They wanted a simple aesthetic. iMovie-esque, brushed metal, easy to use. That product was released in 2001 as iTunes.
iTunes didn’t change the way we consumed music.That revolution was already underway. And that team didn’t just add brushed metal to the rest of the operating system. It had begun with QuickTime in 1991 but it was iTunes through SoundJam that had sparked brushed metal.
SoundJam gave the Mac music visualizers as well. You know, those visuals on the screen that were generated by sound waves from music we were listening to. And while we didn’t know it yet, would be the end of software coming in physical boxes. But something else big. There was another device coming in the digital hub strategy. iTunes became the de facto tool used to manage what songs would go on the iPod, released in 2001 as well. That’s worthy of its own episode which we’ll do soon.
You see, another aspect about SoundJam is that users could rip music off of CDs and into MP3s. The deep engineering work done to get the codec into the system survives here and there in the form of codecs accessible using APIs in the OS. And when combined with spotlight to find music it all became more powerful to build playlists, embed metadata, and listen more insightfully to growing music libraries. But Apple didn’t want to just allow people to rip, find, sort, and listen to music. They also wanted to enable users to create music. So in 2002, Apple also acquired a company called Emagic. Emagic would become Logic Pro and Gerhard Lengeling would in 2004 release a much simpler audio engineering tool called Garage Band.
Digital video and video cameras were one thing. But cheap digital point and shoot cameras were everwhere all of a sudden. iPhoto was the next tool in the strategy, dropping in 2002 Here, we got a tool that could import all those photos from our cameras into a single library. Now called Photos, Apple gave us a taste of the machine learning to come by automatically finding faces in photos so we could easily make albums. Special services popped up to print books of our favorite photos. At the time most cameras had their own software to manage photos that had been developed as an after-thought. iPhoto was easy, worked with most cameras, and was very much not an after-thought.
Keynote came in 2003, making it easy to drop photos into a presentation and maybe even iDVD. Anyone who has seen a Steve Jobs presentation understands why Keynote had to happen and if you look at the difference between many a Power Point and Keynote presentation it makes sense why it’s in a way a bridge between the making work better and doing so in ways we made home better.
That was the same year that Apple released the iTunes Music Store. This seemed like the final step in a move to get songs onto devices. Here, Jobs worked with music company executives to be able to sell music through iTunes - a strategy that would evolve over time to include podcasts, which the moves effectively created, news, and even apps - as explored on the episode on the App Store. And ushering in an era of creative single-purpose apps that drove down the cost and made so much functionality approachable for so many.
iTunes, iPhoto, and iMovie were made to live together in a consumer ecosystem. So in 2003, Apple reached that point in the digital hub strategy where they were able to take our digital life and wrap them up in a pretty bow. They called that product iLife - which was more a bundle of these services, along with iDVD and Garage Band. Now these apps are free but at the time the bundle would set you back a nice, easy, approachable $49.
All this content creation from the consumer to the prosumer to the professional workgroup meant we needed more and more storage. According to the codec, we could be running at hundreds of megabytes per second of content. So Apple licensed the StorNext File System in 2004 to rescue a company called ADIC and release a 64-bit clustered file system over fibre channel. Suddenly all that new high end creative content could be shared in larger and larger environments. We could finally have someone cutting a movie in Final Cut then hand it off to someone else to cut without unplugging a firewire drive to do it. Professional workflows in a pure-Apple ecosystem were a thing.
Now you just needed a way to distribute all this content. So iWeb in 2004, which allowed us to build websites quickly and bring all this creative content in. Sites could be hosted on MobileMe or files uploaded to a web host via FTP. Apple had dabbled in web services since the 80s with AppleLink then eWorld then iTools, .Mac, and MobileMe, the culmination of the evolutions of these services now referred to as iCloud.
And iCloud now syncs documents and more. Pages came in 2005, Numbers came in 2007, and they were bundled with Keynote to become Apple iWork, allowing for a competitor of sorts to Microsoft Office. Later made free and ported to iOS as well. iCloud is a half-hearted attempt at keeping these synchronized between all of our devices.
Apple had been attacking the creative space from the bottom with the tools in iLife but at the top as well. Competing with tools like Avid’s Media Composer, which had been around for the Mac going back to 1989, Apple bundled the professional video products into a single suite called Final Cut Studio. Here, Final Cut Pro, Motion, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Color (obtained when Apple acquired SiliconColor and renamed it from FinalTouch), Compressor, Cinema Tools, and Qmaster for distributing the processing power for the above tools came in one big old box. iMovie and Garage Band for the consumer market and Final Cut Studio and Logic for the prosumer to professional market. And suddenly I was running around the world deploying Xsan’s into video shops, corporate taking head editing studios, and ad agencies
Another place where this happened was with photos. Aperture was released in 2005 and offered the professional photographer tools to manage their large collection of images. And that represented the final pieces of the strategy. It continued to evolve and get better over the years. But this was one of the last aspects of the Digital Hub Strategy.
Because there was a new strategy underway. That’s the year Apple began the development of the iPhone. And this represents a shift in the strategy. Released in 2007, then followed up with the first iPad in 2010, we saw a shift from the growth of new products in the digital hub strategy to migrating them to the mobile platforms, making them stand-alone apps that could be sold on App Stores, integrated with iCloud, and killing off those that appealed to more specific needs in higher-end creative environments, like Aperture, which went ended in 2014, and integrating some into other products, like Color becoming a part of Final Cut Pro. But the income from those products has now been eclipsed by mobile devices. Because when we see the returns from one strategy begin to crest - you know, like when the entire creative industry loves you, it’s time to move to another, bolder strategy. And that mobile strategy opened our eyes to always online (or frequently online) synchronization between products and integration with products, like we get with Handoff and other technologies today.
In 2009 Apple acquired a company called Lala, which would later be added to iCloud - but the impact to the Digital Hub Strategy was that it paved the way for iTunes Match, a cloud service that allowed for syncing music from a local library to other Apple devices. It was a subscription and more of a stop-gap for moving people to a subscription to license music than a lasting stand-alone product. And other acquisitions would come over time and get woven in, such as Redmatia, Beats, and Swell.
Steve Jobs said exactly what Apple was going to do in 2001. In one of the most impressive implementations of a strategy, Apple had slowly introduced quality products that tactically ushered in a digital lifestyle since the late 90s and over the next few years. iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, iDVD, iLife, and in a sign of the changing times - iPod, iPhone, iCloud. To signal the end of that era because it was by then ubiquitous. - then came the iPad. And the professional apps won over the creative industries. Until the strategy had been played out and Apple began laying the groundwork for the next strategy in 2005.
That mobile revolution was built in part on the creative influences of Apple. Tools that came after, like Instagram, made it even easier to take great photos, connect with friends in a way iWeb couldn’t - because we got to the point where “there’s an app for that”. And as the tools weren’t needed, Apple cancelled some one-by-one, or even let Adobe Premiere eclipse Final Cut in many ways. Because you know, sales of the iMac DV were enough to warrant building the product on the Apple platform and eventually Adobe decided to do that. Apple built many of these because there was a need and there weren’t great alternatives. Once there were great alternatives, Apple let those limited quantities of software engineers go work on other things they needed done. Like building frameworks to enable a new generation of engineers to build amazing tools for the platform!
I’ve always considered the release of the iPad to be the end of era where Apple was introducing more and more software. From the increased services on the server platform to tools that do anything and everything. But 2010 is just when we could notice what Jobs was doing. In fact, looking at it, we can easily see that the strategy shifted about 5 years before that. Because Apple was busy ushering in the next revolution in computing.
So think about this. Take an Apple, a Microsoft, or a Google. The developers of nearly every single operating system we use today. What changes did they put in place 5 years ago that are just coming to fruition today. While the product lifecycles are annual releases now, that doesn’t mean that when they have billions of devices out there that the strategies don’t unfold much, much slower. You see, by peering into the evolutions over the past few years, we can see where they’re taking computing in the next few years. Who did they acquire? What products will they release? What gaps does that create? How can we take those gaps and build products that get in front of them? This is where magic happens. Not when we’re too early like a General Magic was. But when we’re right on time. Unless we help set strategy upstream. Or, is it all chaos and not in the least bit predictable? Feel free to send me your thoughts!
And thank you…
Severe Tire Damage. Like many things we cover in this podcast, the first streaming rock band on the Interwebs came out of Xerox PARC. 1993 was a great year. Mariah Carey released Dreamlover, Janet Jackson released That’s The Way Love Goes. Boyz II Men released In The Still of the Nite. OK, so it wasn’t that great a year. But Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train. That was some pretty good stuff out of Minnesota. But Severe Tire Damage was named after They Might Be Giants and a much more appropriate salvo into the world of streaming media. The members were from DEC Systems Research Center, Apple, and Xerox PARC. All members at the time and later are pretty notable in their own right and will likely show up here and there on later episodes of this podcast. So they kinda’ deserved to use half the bandwidth of the entire internet at the time.
The first big band to stream was the Rolling Stones, the following year. Severe Tire Damage did an opening stream of their own. Because they’re awesome. The Stones called the stunt a “good reminder of the democratic nature of the Internet.” They likely had no clue that the drummer is the father of ubiquitous computing, the third wave of computing. But if they have an Apple Watch, a NEST, use an app to remotely throw treats to their dog, use a phone to buy a plane ticket, or check their Twitter followers 20 times a day, they can probably thank Mark Weiser for his contributions to computing. They can also thank Steve Rubin for his contributions on the 3D engine in the Mac. Or his wife Amy for her bestselling book Impossible Cure.
But back to streaming media. Really, streaming media goes back to George O Squier getting patents for transmitting music over electrical lines in the 1910s and 1920s. This became Muzak. And for decades, people made fun of elevator music. While he originally meant for the technology to compete with radio, he ended up pivoting in the 30s to providing music to commercial clients. The name Muzak was a mashup of music and Kodak, mostly just for a unique trademark. By the end of the 30s Warner Brothers had acquired Muzak and then it went private again when George Benton, the chairman and publisher of the Encyclopædia Britannica pivoted the company into brainwashing for customers, alternating between music and silence in 15 minute intervals and playing soft tones to make people feel more comfortable while waiting for a doctor or standing in an elevator. Makes you wonder what he might have shoved into the Encyclopedia! Especially since he went on to become a senator. At least he led the charge to get rid of McCarthy who referred to him as “Little Willie Benton.” I guess some things never change. Benton passed away in 1973, but you can stream an interview with him from archives.org ( https://archive.org/details/gov.archives.arc.95761 ).
Popularity of Muzak waned over the following decades until they went bankrupt in 2009. After reorganization it was acquired in 2011 and is now Mood Media, which has also gone bankrupt. I guess people want a more democratic form of media these days. I blame the 60s. Not much else happened in streaming until the 1990s. A couple of technologies were maturing at this point to allow for streaming media. The first is the Internet. TCP/IP was standardized in 1982 but public commercial use didn’t really kick on until the late 1980s. We’ll reserve that story for another episode. The next is MPEG.
MPEG is short for the Moving Picture Experts Group. MPEG is a working group formed specifically to set standards for audio and video compression and the transmission of that audio and video over networks. The first meeting of the group was in 1988. The group defined a standard format for playing media on the Internet, soon to actually be a thing (but not yet). And thus the MPEG format was born. MPEG is now the international standard for encoding and compressing video images. Following the first release they moved quickly. In 1992, the MPEG-1 standard was approved at a meeting in London. This gave us MPEG Layer 3, or MP3 as well as video CDs. At the Porto meeting in 1994, we got MPEG-2 standard, thus DVDs, DVD players and AAC standard a long standard for iTunes and used for both television and audio encoding. MPEG-4 came in 1999, and the changes began to slow as adoption increased. Today, MPEG-7 and MPEG-21 are under development.
Then came the second wave of media. In 1997, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev built WinAmp. A lot of people had a lot of CDs. Some of those people also had WinAmp or other MP3 players and rippers. By 1999 enough steam bad been built up that Sean Parker, Shawn Fanning, and John Fanning built a tool called Napster that allowed people to trade those MP3s online. At their height, 80 million people were trading music online. People started buying MP3 players, stereos had MP3 capabilities, and you could find and download any song you could think of easier and cheaper than you could get them at a music store. Brick and mortar music stores began to close their doors and record labels saw a huge drop in profits. I knew people with terabytes of music, where each song was about 3 megs.
The music industry had suffered a massive blow. After a long court battle, the RIAA obtained an injunction that forced Napster to shut down in 2001. The music industry thought maybe they were saved. But by then other sites like Limewire and many other services had popped up and to shut pandora’s box, we needed innovation,
The innovation was making it simple to buy music. Sure, people could continue to steal music if they wanted, but it turned out that if a song was a buck, people were likely to just go out and buy it. Other vendors followed suit and before long the tide of stealing music was turned back.
Another innovation had occurred in 2001 but hadn’t really caught steam yet. Rhapsody (originally TuneTo.com) was launched in December of 2001. Rhapsody slowly built up a catalog of 11 million songs and 750,000 subscribers. Rhapsody worked kinda’ like Radio. Pandora Radio, launched in 2005, allowed users to create their own stations. With 66 million active users, Pandora was bought by Sirius XM for 3.5 Billion dollars. But if these were the only vendors that were in this space, it might not be what it is today. I remember in about 2010, I asked my niece about buying a song. She looked at me like I was stupid. Why would you buy a song. I asked her about downloading them for free. Black stare. That’s when I realized the third wave of streaming music was on us.
Spotify, originally created in 2006, allowed users to build their own stations of songs and now has 217 million users with nearly half paying for the subscription so they don’t get ads, with revenue of nearly $6 Billion dollars. Apple Music was late to the party, arriving in 2015, because Steve Jobs wasn’t into music subscription services. But since the launch they are up to 60 million users in 2019. Apple’s services revenue though is over a quarter trillion dollars a year. Google has 15 million streaming subscribers and with the emergence of their Echo’s Amazon is poised to garner a lot of streaming music subscribers.
Music isn’t the only business that has been disrupted. You see, the innovation that iTunes and the popularization of the iPod created also made us rethink other business models. Television and movie consumption has shifted to streaming platforms. And Apps. The iOS App Store was released in 2008. The App Stores have shifted many an enterprise software into smaller workflows strung together with apps. There are now 1.8 million apps on that App Store and 2.1 available for Android users. These apps have led to ride sharing services and countless other apps displacing businesses that have operated the same way for sometimes hundreds of years. Yes, this story is about streaming music. But the movement that started with Severe Tire Damage combined with other technologies to have a resounding impact to how we live our lives. It’s no wonder that their drummer, Mark Weiser, is widely considered to be the father of ubiquitous computing.