September 7, 2005: Apple and Motorola launch the Rokr E1, the first Cupertino-sanctioned cellphone to run iTunes.
Even the high-profile demo goes wrong, and Apple CEO Steve Jobs is very unhappy with the results. The compromised device shows what an error it is to let an outside designer create a phone under the Apple banner. The company won’t make the same mistake twice.
With Rokr E1, Apple gets into the phone game
The Rokr’s origins date back to 2004, when sales of the iPod portable music player made up approximately 45% of Apple’s revenue. (By comparison, today the iPhone — Apple’s most popular product — generates nearly half of the company’s revenues.)
With so much resting on the iPod’s dominance, Jobs began worrying that another company could come up with a way of offering what the iPod did — only better. He feared the negative impact such a competitor would have on Apple’s moneymaking ability.
The product Jobs worried about most was the cellphone. The devices already offered built-in cameras, and Jobs figured it was only a matter of time before phone manufacturers started adding serious music players as well. In a very un-Jobsian move, he decided the easiest way to undercut potential rivals was to team with another company to get an Apple-sanctioned phone into the marketplace first.
Jobs picked Motorola. He proposed to Motorola CEO Ed Zander that they release a version of the popular Motorola Razr that would include a built-in iPod.
‘iTunes phone’ falls short of Apple’s standards
In the end, the resulting Rokr E1 proved disastrous. With its cheap plastic design, poor camera and 100-song limit, it fell far short of the iPod’s promise of 1,000 songs in your pocket.
Designed to make listening to your music easy — and pitched as the “iTunes phone” during Jobs’ presentation at Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco — the first Apple phone even failed on that front. The Rokr E1 required that users buy songs via iTunes, then transfer them to the device using a cable.
To make matters worse, the phone came locked to Cingular Wireless.
Even the Rokr E1 demo goes wrong
Jobs’ introduction of the phone onstage proved to be perhaps the cringiest product demo in Apple history. Jobs failed to demonstrate the phone’s ability to play iTunes music correctly.
“It was supposed to resume my music right back to where it was,” he said during the Apple event, looking supremely pissed off. “I hit the wrong button. But you can resume your music right back to where it was if you hit the right button.”
Compared with the first iPod nano, which Jobs showed off at the same event, the Rokr E1 may as well have been a dusty old museum relic.
It didn’t take long before Jobs lost patience altogether. In September 2006, Apple discontinued support for the Rokr E1. Inside Apple, Jobs turned his attention to surveying the rest of the cellphone landscape. He ultimately came to the conclusion that most of the other options out there seemed no better than Motorola’s efforts.
Less than 18 months later, Jobs showed off the first-generation iPhone.
Also today in Apple history
September 7, 2016: Apple unveils the very first AirPods during a special event in San Francisco. The blindingly white wireless earbuds look undeniably strange at first glance, with their long, slender stems and a charging case that looks like a dental floss container. However, after their December release, AirPods will quickly become the most popular earbuds in the world.
The wireless earbuds will prove particularly important due to one specific aspect of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, which Apple also debuted at the same event on this day in 2016. That feature: the courageous lack of a headphone jack.
The omission of this key hardware component caused consternation among many iPhone fans. However, as with many pivotal Apple decisions, the full embrace of wireless technology now seems prescient.