Apple's Inspiration For The iPod? Bang & Olufsen, Not Braun

Many believe Dieter Rams's T3 pocket radio informed the first iPod design. But Apple's inspiration for the music player's wheel navigation actually came from a different source.

Apple has discontinued the iPod classic. Here's a story from November 2013 on the device's unexpected design inspiration.—Eds

For a company as forward thinking as Apple is, much of its success is arguably owed to the age-old concept of the wheel. More specifically, the click wheel, the novel navigation tool embedded in its original iPod music player.

Apple has sold hundreds of millions of iPods to date. The revolutionary product disrupted the music business and ushered in an era of mobile consumer products. It helped iTunes balloon into a massive asset, pushed Apple toward experiential design, and served as the foundation for early iPhone prototypes. But back in the early aughts, as Fast Company learned from speaking to scores of insiders for our recent oral history of the company's design philosophy, Apple wasn't initially sure how it would design the iPod's user interface. That is, until Apple found inspiration from the Danish company Bang & Olufsen.

"One of our big issues was how we would do the user interface," says one source intimately involved in the project. Apple was hoping to deliver a device that could carry 1,000 songs. The problem was figuring out an innovative way to help users browse through their expansive music libraries. "Everyone had these goofy buttons, and we hated buttons," the source adds. "So how do we do it [differently]?"

It's commonly said that the iPod was inspired by Braun's T3 pocket radio. The white, Deiter Rams-designed device looks remarkably similar to the iPod, especially with its scrolling wheel and cigarette-pack-size form factor.

While it's possible Apple took visual cues from Braun's design, the inspiration for the wheel itself came from a different place. "It was a Bang & Olufsen phone," explains the source. "B&O did a phone, like a home phone, and they used a wheel to scroll. [Apple marketing SVP] Phil [Schiller] had seen it, and said, 'Well, we should do that.'"

Image: Dieter Rams, Pocket Radio (model T3) via MoMA[

Around that time, Bang & Olufsen had brought the technology to its BeoCom 6000, a wireless telephone designed by Henrik Sørig Thomsen that used "an intuitive navigation wheel to give speedy access to practical features like a phone book." B&O had been using wheel technology for decades, recognizing, according to the company's website, that "all the primary functions" can be "carried out using the wheel and the keys that surround it." Even 1974's BM 6000 used a wheel to control volume and tuning.

But most significantly, the BeoCom 6000 phone used sound to echo the wheel's turns. "We wanted it to have sound ... because we wanted to give it a tactile feeling," recalls Thomsen, who says Bang & Olufsen at first experimented with various materials in order to produce the hardware's audible complement. "But some of the technical people came up with the idea to make the sound come from the loud speaker."

When Schiller showed the Apple team the design, the reaction was unanimous. "It was instantaneous: This solves the problem," says the Apple source. "Everyone went, 'Wow!'"

A team of Fast Company reporters spent months interviewing more than 50 former Apple execs and insiders, many of whom had never spoken publicly about their work. Read the part 3 of the oral history here, which covers the creation of the iPod. An extended version of this oral history is available from Byliner. Purchase it here.

[Image: Flickr user Freimut]

Add New Comment

31 Comments

  • David Carlson

    IT’S NOT WHERE YOU TAKE THINGS FROM - IT’S WHERE YOU TAKE THEM TO

    Jean-Luc Goddard

  • Being inspired by something is not ripping it off.

    Ripping something off would be what Samsung did to the iPhone (as proven in court).

  • EastVillage

    I'm really glad Apple was smart enough to recognize the solution, regardless of the source. "The marketing guy" - who cares? It was the right solution. Bravo, Apple.

  • Luis Omar Guerrero

    "Bang & Olufsen: for those who discuss design and quality before price"

  • Arrow

    All good designs borrow from others and improve on them. Sorry to disagree but design elements point to Braun imho. I own a classic Braun calculator. It is classic and beautiful and functional even after 25+ years. When you look at and its feel and then look at the Iphone, the design elements are dead ringers.

  • bonooobong

    they've just stolen the best design ideas of their age: Dieter Rams' gutes design with its pure and functional beauty has been the best choice compared with the high-tech awesomeness of Bo. I totally can understand their decision, and don't know why they can't admit this.

  • Rasam Rostami

    The thing is it's not just the iPod, u can clearly see almost all of the 10 Design principles of Dieter Rams's philosophy in design. there are more examples than just the iPod, what about iMac? or Mac Pro?
    u can read more here:
    http://gizmodo.com/343641/1960...

  • dhairston

    "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn." - T. S. Eliot

    "Art is theft." - Pablo Picasso

  • immovableobject

    Yes, Apple does use the ideas of others, but repurposes them and combines them in unique ways and in non-competing products. Note that in making the original iPod, Apple did NOT copy the UI of any other MP3 player (the way that others have copied the iPhone's UI for their phones). So one can say that Apple "steals" good ideas, but does not copy products.

  • pjcamp

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but those exceptions do not exist in intellectual property law. Theft is theft. In any case, you can't credibly argue that a cell phone does not compete at all with a landline phone. Apple has sued (successfully) for copying rounded corners. That seems on the same level as a click wheel.

  • immovableobject

    But you see, I'm NOT arguing that a cell phone doesn't compete with a landline phone. I'm arguing that there is no way in hell that the click-wheel iPod, strictly a music player competes with B&O's telephone. Furthermore there is no way that one might confuse an iPod with the B&O device. As far as I know B&O didn't sue Apple

    On the subject of rounded corners, Apple did NOT sue just anyone and everyone who made a device with rounded corners. They have never claimed exclusive ownership of that feature. Rather they sued Samsung who came out with a competing cell phone that deliberately was designed to superficially resemble the iPhone so as to create an association with the Apple product in the mind of the customer.

    Rounded corners were but one of over a dozen features that together defined the design of the iPhone. Samsung had gone as far as to copy the icons, retail package and even the shape of the AC adaptor, Perhaps if Samsung had limited its copying to just one or two attributes, Apple wouldn't have minded.

  • pjcamp

    Oh come on! Name one person who has ever confused an iPhone with a Galaxy. Apple filed the same stupid lawsuit against HTC. They also paid out $100 million for copying Creative's mp3 player UI. The rest is just idiotic. The shape of an AC adapter? Really? Every adapter in the world looks exactly alike. Did Apple innovate two prongs? Apple builds on the work of others just like everyone else. The difference is they don't want to admit it.

  • immovableobject

    It doesn't matter that people knew that the Samsung knock-off was not a genuine Apple product. The close resemblance to the iPhone created the expectation that it would provide the same experience and afford the same status as if they had bought the real thing.

    Apple had done the hard work of creating an iconic and original design for the iPhone. Next they spent the money to advertise and popularize it, creating demand. Then Samsung swoops in with a superficial clone in order to cash in at Apple's expense. Preventing this blatant exploitation is the whole reason that design patents exist.

    Apple voluntarily settled with Creative, but Samsung went all the way court where they lost.

    Every AC Adaptor does NOT look alike. Apple's was unique (at least until Samsung copied it). It's not about the number of prongs. Are you being willfully obtuse?

    If none of the little design details mattered, why did Samsung feel compelled to copy them so closely?

    Of course Apple incorporates other's ideas. And if they violate others patents, they pay for them. I never said they didn't. What they don't do is build clones. Apple is rightly proud of its ability to create bold and distinguishing designs.

  • pjcamp

    It DOES matter since the law specifically requires a confusion in the marketplace for liability.

    Apple didn't do the "hard work." They ripped off the LG Prada.

    Your argument is incoherent. Samsung can't "cash in" if there is no marketplace confusion.

    Apple settled with Creative because otherwise they'd get their ass handed to them.

    Samsung was arguably the victim of a runaway jury which explicitly ignored the judge's instructions because following the law was too hard. That case is still being litigated and the award has already been knocked down to less than half what the jury awarded (because they couldn't do arithmetic either) with a retrial still pending.

    And I have no further time for fanbois.