Apple's first-ever iTunes phone launched today

By Jonny Evans

On this day six years ago Apple [AAPL] introduced its first phone. Jointly developed with Motorola and made available on what was then the Cingular Wireless network, the iTunes-savvy Motorola ROKR may have been fugly, but Apple engineers learned as much as they could while developing it: lessons which helped them avoid the same mistakes in the iPhone and future iPhone 5.

[ABOVE: See the look of disinterest on Steve's face as he introduces the Motorola iTunes phone.

Imperfect cousins

Today, Google's move to acquire Motorola is sending another series of seismic waves among all the search giant's existing Android partners.

The sheer number of patents held by Motorola is astonishing -- after all, it was Motorola who created the world's first mass market mobile phone; patents held in the firm's portfolio cover some of the most essential technologies for the mobile industry.

But Apple had better ideas.

Flash back to September 7, 2005, and you can see then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, introducing the Apple/Motorola phone.

This device -- which had been speculated about for months -- had two great features: it was a phone, and it would hold up to 100 iTunes songs.

[ABOVE: A typical Motorola ROKR with iTunes ad. Erm...]

Unrivaled, world class, fail

Quick, send in the quotes (directly from Apple's press release at the time):

"We've worked closely with Motorola to deliver the world's best music experience on a mobile phone," said Steve Jobs, Apple's CEO. "We're also thrilled to be working with Cingular, the largest wireless carrier in the US, to bring this pioneering phone to market."

"The ROKR brings music to the mobile phone in a way unlike any other, with the unrivaled ease of use that has become the signature of iTunes," said Ed Zander, chairman and CEO of Motorola. "We predict that the ROKR is going to be a hit this holiday season."

"We're excited to be the first wireless carrier to offer the world's first phone with iTunes to our customers nationwide," said Ralph de la Vega, chief operating officer of Cingular Wireless. "This innovative product represents a world class handset, connected to a world class network, delivering a world class application."

The innovation was modest. Equipped with stereo speakers, a camera, video recorder and a 1.7-inch color display, the music would switch off automatically when you took a call....

All this for an affordable $249.99 with a two-year Cingular contract.

Screen_shot_2011-09-07_at_14_13_18.jpg

[ABOVE: This phone didn't really rock the world, sorry.]

All about the nano

While Motorola declared the device to be "rocking the world," even the more positive reviews were guarded: "It's evolutionary, not revolutionary," declared Mobile Phones UK.

Why was this thing so un-pretty? Why had Apple insisted on an arbitrary-seeming 100-track limit (indeed, some said Apple had cited "licensing issues" in an attempt to demand a 25-song limit)?

Hindsight offers its own perfect recall. Perhaps Apple knew the days of this iTunes phone were numbered. That's because Apple was already working on its own phone prototypes, and had been for years. It was only 17 months later that Apple introduced the first-generation iPhone in January 2007.

Deep in the darkest and most secret corridors of Apple r&d, right beside the bank of Macs running on ARM processors and the dusty shells of the first Intel Macs, there's a pile of iPhone prototypes of various kinds. You shouldn't be in any doubt that Apple was already developing its own world-changing device, while making friends with Cingular/AT&T on the back of its Motorola relationship.

Apple knew the future.

Motorola didn't.

While Jobs' clearly sneered at the Motorola iTunes phone when he presented it, he didn't at the iPod nano Apple also introduced at the event -- and it was the iPod nano the world's media grew excited about.

Screen_shot_2011-07-25_at_14_40_16.jpg

What did Apple call the ROKR with iTunes? Jon Rubinstein, at the time Apple's Senior vice president in the iPod Division (which also bought us the easily forgotten 'iPod HiFi'), calling the phone "an experiment".

That had to hurt.

Who can recall then Motorola CEO Ed Zander's bitter-seeming invective against the iPod nano, when he said, "Screw the nano. What the hell does the nano do? Who listens to 1,000 songs? People are going to want devices that do more than just play music, something that can be seen in many other countries with more advanced mobile phone networks and savvy users".

Both right and wrong

How right he was. And how wrong. That ugly Motorola iTunes phone wouldn't even be a contender in today's market; and that 100-song capacity would be infinite with support for iTunes in the iCloud.

The iPod nano was the one device which delivered a huge sea change in the fortunes of Apple in the mobile space. On the one hand it massively increased iPod sales, delivering a huge boost to the company's brand awareness, and the subsequent increase in Mac market share.

Subsequently, Apple was able to parlay all of this into mass market attention for the iPhone. All on the back of the nano, which killed the iTunes phone Apple revealed six years ago on September 7.

What could the company have planned next? We'll know soon enough now iOS 5 and iCloud is with carriers for testing and new units of the next-gen iPhones enter production and await the essential software update. Because the next iTunes phone won't be like the ROKR...

Your thoughts? Let me know your thoughts in comments below, please follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when new reports get published here first on Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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