Today in Apple history: HP’s iPod comes out of the blue

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The Apple iPod + HP flopped, but it was still a savvy business move for Apple
Do you remember the HP-branded iPod?
Photo: Keegan/Wikipedia CC

January 8: Today in Apple history: Apple iPod + HP debuts January 8, 2004: The clumsily named Apple iPod + HP, a Hewlett-Packard-branded iPod, makes it debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Shown off by Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, the prototype device is colored blue, the color used for HP’s branding. By the time it arrives on the market later that year, however, the device is the same shade of white as the regular iPod. It doesn’t hang around for long.

Apple + HP = Not a meaningful collaboration

On paper, the collaboration between Hewlett-Packard and Apple seemed to come out of left field. There was, however, shared history between the two companies. Most famously, Steve Jobs’ “career” had started when, as a kid, he looked up HP co-founder Bill Hewlett in the phone book and wound up getting a summer job at the company. HP also employed Steve Wozniak during the time he worked on the Apple-1 and Apple II computers.

Over the years, Apple recruited a number of high-performing individuals from HP, which had a reputation as being an enormously well-run company. HP had a campus in Cupertino, which it kept until 2010, when it sold the land to Apple to build Apple Park.

Regardless of these ties, the Apple iPod + HP never came across like a meaningful collaboration between both companies.

Jobs typically loathed licensing Apple technology, which explains why he was never keen to port Mac OS to other systems. He only begrudgingly did this with the NeXTSTEP operating system at NeXT. And he immediately canceled the licensed “clone Macs” when he returned to Apple in the late 1990s. The Apple iPod + HP marked the only time he ever licensed the official iPod name to another company, although he did license iTunes to Motorola to create the first (sort of) Apple phone.

Steve Jobs’ smart strategy

By 2004, Jobs had backed down on his hard line view that the iTunes Music Store should never be available on a non-Mac computer. The service had expanded to Windows PCs in late 2003, although HP was the only Windows manufacturer that got its own iPod variant.

As part of the deal, iTunes came preinstalled on all HP Pavilion and Compaq Presario computers. In theory, it was a win-win for both companies: HP got a unique selling point, while Apple could further broaden its iTunes market. This gave iTunes a presence in places like Wal-Mart and RadioShack, where Apple computers weren’t sold.

In fact, the HP iPod deal may have been a smart bit of corporate jiu-jitsu on Apple’s part. In a 2015 Medium post, titled “How Steve Jobs Fleeced Carly Fiorina,” journalist Steven Levy suggests that the move was a strategic one to block HP from installing Windows Media Store on their PCs. While HP did indeed get an HP-branded iPod, soon afterward Apple upgraded its own iPod — thereby making HP’s version outdated. Levy writes:

In short, Fiorina’s “good friend” Steve Jobs blithely mugged her and HP’s shareholders. By getting Fiorina to adopt the iPod as HP’s music player, Jobs had effectively gotten his software installed on millions of computers for free, stifled his main competitor, and gotten a company that prided itself on invention to declare that Apple was a superior inventor. And he lost nothing, except the few minutes it took him to call Carly Fiorina and say he was sorry she got canned.

Ultimately, the deal failed to deliver the kind of sales figures HP hoped for. On July 29, 2005, HP terminated the deal, although the company was contractually obligated to install iTunes on its computers until January 2006. Some time later, it launched its own Compaq audio player, which failed to make waves.

Do you remember the Apple iPod + HP? Were you first exposed to iTunes through an HP computer? Let us know in the comments below.

Source: StoriesOfApple