Image Credit: Christina Samuelson

Image Credit: Christina Samuelson

Last week, the Silicon Valley Forum held a Visionary Salon Dinner event with Tony Fadell. Kevin Surace, Appvance’s CEO, interviewed Fadell on his past accomplishments and journey through technology. An edited transcript of the conversation shows just how in-depth the conversation went. Fadell’s interview is a personal look at what drove the creator forward while building the iPod, the iPhone, and the Nest Thermostat.

His Childhood

Starting the conversation at the beginning of his life, Fadell delves deep into what began his passion with technology. His grandfather instilled in him the skill sets of home repair at a young age. After the Apple II launched, Fadell began to use these learned skills to go on and buy his first computer.

Knowing that he wanted to learn and grow further, Fadell went to work alongside his heroes at General Magic. Discussing how the company had been so far ahead of the curve, Fadell understood the impact they could have had. They had a device that had mobile email, games, and shopping, all in 1994. But because the device relied on a proprietary AT&T network, it’s public reach remained limited. While it remained a critical success, business-wise it did not do too well.

The iPod’s Start

The interview begins to pick up steam when Fadell dives into the discussion of how the iPod came to be. At a startup company, Fuse, they were already building a CD ripper. Being a DJ, Fadell wanted a way to carry around all his music in “one box”. After pitching the idea to many companies and everyone turning him down, Apple went on to hire him as an eight week contractor. The job turned into 10 years and 18 generations of iPods.

The struggles Apple had at the time of the iPod is often forgotten. With $500 million in debt at the time, bringing an MP3 player into the market was not considered to be the best use of resources. Fadell believed the way to make the iPod a true success was to make it compatible with the PC. Bringing it to the PC would allow a wider demographic to buy it, and learn of the Mac ecosystem.

Getting it shipped onto the PC was a whole other challenge. Steve Jobs was against it, and at the end it actually took the approval of infamous technology journalist, Walt Mossberg. According to Fadell, Jobs had stated,”… if Mossberg says it’s good enough to ship, then we’ll ship it.” After Mossberg’s approval came (“Not bad. I’d ship it”), the iPod was then released out into the PC ecosystem.

iPod becoming the iPhone

Fadell’s explanation of how the iPhone started from the iPod, was something I had never heard of before this interview. He explains that when the launch of these “futurephones” were coming out, they could do everything the iPods were doing. Play music, videos, and photos. They needed to do something to counter this. Recanting the success that was the ROKR E1, they realized they would have to build their own phone instead of relying on another company.

iPhone meets iPod

According to Fadell, they started by making an iPod with a phone module inside. Dialing phone numbers mimicked the experience of using a rotary dial. They knew it was terrible, and they continued onwards for seven or eight months to try to make it “work”.

The ping-pong table-sized touchscreen Mac, shrunken down

While the team was attempting to build the iPod phone, they were also trying to build a touchscreen Mac. These two projects eventually meshed together. They understood that they needed to increase the display real estate on the iPod, without it having a click wheel. They understood a virtual interface on top of the display was what the device would need.

Steve Jobs at one point showed off a ping-pong table to Tony Fadell that “had a projector of a Mac on it”. That table was the first multi-touch screen according to Fadell, and Steve told him, “We’re going to put that in an iPod.” The desire to build a better phone lead to the start of many smaller projects. A touch screen company formed to build the multi-touch technology. This then lead to a better operating system. Which lead to a Frankenstein’s monster of pieces from the Mac and iPod bolted together. Taking two and half to three years from when they started, the device we know as the iPhone finally shipped.

Building solutions to the problems you have

Before going off and starting Nest, Fadell spent some time traveling the world with his family. All the while, he was building a home in Tahoe and kept running into different problems. With the goal of building a green and connected home, he could not find the solutions he wanted. As he traveled the world he learned that not only did thermostats and smoke detectors suck in America, but it was a problem all over the world.

Nest thermostat 003

After spending time trying to cobble things together, Fadell decided it was time to build a better thermostat. This was the beginning of the Nest. Fadell remembers an important lesson that Jobs had taught him, “if you lead it and put your heart and soul into it, and you can sell it because you know every single bit of it, that will resonate with people, because you’re solving problems both for yourself and for a lot of other people who see the same thing.”

On AR and VR

Tony Fadell also delves a little into what he believes the future and current status of AR and VR is. Telling Surace that he started working on VR at the University of Michigan and how he went to the first cyber-posium in San Francisco in 1989, Fadell’s seen the hype around VR twice in his lifetime. Relating it to his experience in building the iPhone, he believes that currently we’re at the early days of VR, a bit too soon. He knows it’s going to happen, but a lot of other technologies that need to get built first.

Tony Fadell’s drive to improve the world around him in different ways is infectious. The interview transcript is a lengthy read, but definitely worth it. Surace’s questions drive the conversation seamlessly in a way that connects Fadell’s story beautifully.

Image Credit: Christina Samuelson

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