Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs unveils Rokr E1, the first iTunes phone

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The Rokr E1 was the first Apple-sanctioned cellphone. It wasn't good.
The iPhone's terrible ancestor proved disastrous from Day 1.
Photo: Apple

September 7: Today in Apple history: Steve Jobs unveils Rokr E1, the first iTunes phone September 7, 2005: Apple and Motorola launch the Rokr E1, the first Cupertino-sanctioned cellphone to run iTunes.

Steve Jobs is very unhappy with the results. The device shows that it’s a compromise to let an outside designer create a phone under the Apple banner. The company won’t make the same mistake twice.

Rokr E1: Apple gets into the phone game

The Motorola Rokr E1 in all its, err, glory.
The Rokr E1 in all its, err, glory.
Photo: Motorola
The Rokr’s origins date back to 2004, when sales of the iPod portable music player made up approximately 45 percent of Apple’s revenue. (By comparison, today the iPhone — Apple’s most popular product — represents around 56 percent of company revenue.)

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 was most worried about 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 partner phone to the popular Motorola Razr handset, which would include a built-in iPod.

Not up to Apple’s usual standards

In the end, the Rokr E1 proved disastrous. With its cheap plastic design, poor camera and a 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,” it also 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 Rokr E1 came locked to Cingular Wireless.

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. 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.